The Swayamvara of Draupadi had reached its climax. After all the powerful rulers of Bharata – from Shishupala to Jarasandha to Duryodhana and Karna – had failed to even string the Kindhura, the divine bow of Lord Shankara, Arjuna easily lifted and strung it and pierced the matsya-yantra with five arrows. Raja Drupada’s joy knew no bound. The person who had achieved this task appeared like a Brahmana. But he had finally found someone who had the strength to string the bow. “Rudradeva had promised me that none other than Arjuna would be able to succeed. I still think there is some mystery behind this Brahmana” – thought a delighted Drupada.
The numerous Kings who had assembled there, had other thoughts. Their pride was picked. Their ego hurt. There was no way they would accept that a mere Brahmana had succeeded in doing something that none of them could. Their collective sense of shame turned into anger. They accused Drupada of staging the whole event and considered it an insult.
ते हन्यैनं दुरात्मानं यो ह्यस्मानवमन्यते |
नायमर्हति सत्कारं न हि वृद्धो मतो गुणैः ||
They openly declared their intent to kill Drupada, along with his son Dhrishtadyumna. They started debating the appropriateness of opening up Swayamvaras to all people and wanted to introduce a new rule barring Brahmanas from participating. At the end of all the arguing, they picked up their weapons and rushed towards the King of Panchala. Scared, Drupada took refuge amongst the group of Brahmanas that also included the Pandavas.
The menacing rush of the Kings, like a pack of hyenas, angered the two lions there – Bhima and Arjuna. Bhima’s first reaction was very Bhima-like. He uprooted a huge tree that stood nearby and shook it so hard that all its leaves withered away.
Meanwhile, Yudhisthira had dashed out for a quick check back home to make sure Kunti was not unduly worried. He walked in and stood next to his brothers. The stage was set for a big battle. However, they were still in disguise. Arjuna suddenly got worried that their disguise would be blown away. He made a strange request to Bhima.
मा सिंहनादं कुरु पूर्वजेह |
मा घोरतां दर्शय शत्रुमध्ये
साधारणं योधय तावदार्य ||
“Dear brother. Please do not let out your roar with your usual force. Do not be as severe as you can be. Can you wage a subdued battle?” – asked Arjuna.
At this juncture, Sri Krishna, who was witnessing the whole drama approached Balarama and pointed out the five radiant Brahmanas and introduced them as the Pandavas in disguise. Realizing that his aunt’s children were still alive, Balarama’s joy knew no bounds.
Noticing that the Kings were still insistent on battle, the group of Brahmanas who had accompanied the Pandavas kept their Kamandalus aside and declared that they would fight the attackers! Arjuna gave out a large smile and requested them to step aside and watch what was about to unfold.
Bhima and Arjuna stepped forward and accepted the challenge of the Kings. Arjuna stood face to face with Karna. Shalya challanged the mighty Bhima. Duryodhana and Yudhisthira locked up against each other.
Arjuna started the battle very softly and released three arrows that hurt Karna. An intense engagement followed. Every attack from Karna was repulsed by Arjuna and all his arrows were destroyed. Realizing that he was losing the duel, Karna diverted the focus of the engagement.
किं त्वं साक्षाद् धनुर्वेदो रामो वा विप्रसत्तमः |
अथ साक्षाद्धरिहयः साक्षाद्वा विष्णुरव्यः ||
He announced that none other than Parashurama, Indra, Vishnu or Arjuna could not face him. “My power is receding even as I engage with you” – saying so Karna retired from the battle, without explicitly stating so. Arjuna smilingly replied that he was neither Indra nor Vishnu but a different person who had great devotion to his Guru. He released an arrow cutting Karna’s bow-string. Arjuna picked up an arrow with the intention of finishing off Karna.
एवमुक्त्वा तु कर्णस्य धनुर्ज्यामथ सोsच्छिनत् |
ततः कर्णविनाशाय संदधे शरमर्जुनः |
जितोsस्मीत्यब्रवीत् कर्णः संजहार ततोsर्जुनः ||
Sensing danger Karna explicitly declared that he had lost. Arjuna did not wish to kill a person who had surrendered and hence withdrew his arrow.
At this juncture, Bhima and Shalya entered into a battle. It was as if two wild elephants on “mast” were launching against each other. The two of them hit each other with their fists, knees and shoulders for nearly a muhurtha.
ततो भीमः समुत्क्षिप्य बाहुभ्यां शल्यमाहवे |
नावधीद् बलिनां श्रेष्ठो जहसुर्ब्राह्मणास्तदा ||
Bhima then chose to end the battle and picked up Shalya like a toy ball. Keeping in mind Arjuna’s request to fight mildly, and also the fact that Shalya was their maternal uncle, he picked up Shalya and threw him up into the sky. Instead of letting him fall down, he caught him like a ball and released him. Shalya withdrew as the “game” had all the assembled Brahmanas laughing uncontrallably. Bhima moved towards uprooting another tree but Yudhisthira stopped him.
Duryodhana attacked Yudhisthira but an enraged Dharmaraja fired a succession of arrows at his shoulder.
अभ्यवर्षच्चरौघैस्तं स हित्वा प्राद्रवद्रणात् |
After a brief battle, Duryodhana ran away from there.
Dushashana and the other Kaurava princes were also treated to a sound defeat by Sahadeva and Nakula.
Sensing an utter humilation, the Kauravas made up a convenient excuse. “Why should we build animosity with Brahmanas?” – they asked and left the place.
Finally, Drupada felt at ease. He could now focus on getting his daughter married.
Thus ended the first major encounter between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The result was an indication of things to come.