But what of the main protagonists of the story? What battles did they fight and win? One hears stories of victory and valor of Bhima and Arjuna - the second and the third Pandava princes - all throughout the Epic. In fact even before the war starts, these two brothers have become legands across the land. During the 18 days of the War, Arjuna - known as the greatest archer of the time - kills most of the Maharathis, commanders and famous warriors - Bhishma, Karna, Jayadratha to name a few. Bhimasena, known for his might and ferocity and his skill with the mace, kills all the 100 Kaurava brothers - including his arch nemesis Duryodhana and his brother Dusshasana.
But what of Yudhishthir, the Eldest - the one who would rule over the entire Earth if his side wins the war? He is known to be skillful with the spear. But did he not participate at all in the war barring few skirmishes, or did he remain true to his name - 'Yudhi stheera' - the one who remains stationary (actually it means 'calm', but we have a poetic license, don't we?) - admist the battle?
There are a few accounts of the battles that Yudhishthir personally fought during the Great War. Most of these are as a part of the crowd. The account of Karna fighting a duel with him on the 16th day, when he defeats Yudhishthir completely - just like he did with other four Pandavas (except Arjuna) - and yet lets him live after suitably humiliating him - seems like a later inclusion by the people who insist on showing Karna to be one of the greatest warriors of that time.
Apart from that, the only two times when Yudhishthir's presence is felt during the War is related to strategy and psychological warfare. In one instance, when he feels that Arjuna is not fighting with his full strength against Karna, he humiliates his younger brother in the hope that his taunts will make Arjuna angry, and that anger will do its job - which it does eventually. The other instance is when Dronacharya (this is before the above incident), concerned about the news of his son Ashwatthama being killed in battle, seeks out Yudhishthir to find the truth, and Yudhishthir, knowing the value of propaganda and psychological warfare, tells a half-truth - making Drona lose all interest in the war and finally get overpowered by Dhristadyunma.
But did he only manage the strategy - like the modern day generals or did he actually enter the battlefield with his weapons? ... It seems that he was saving his strength and energy till the later part of the war, just like Duryodhana was doing on the other side, and just like the modern day generals. Like they say, in the game of chess, it is the pawns that go out first.
So what made the first-born Pandava finally come out in the field for a full fight? It was on the last day of the war. A lot of warriors had died on both sides. Both armies had dwindled in numbers, and the men were tired of fighting. On the Kaurava side, Bhishma was out of battle. Drona and Karna were both killed. But the greed of Duryodhan was still not satiated. He got Shalya to lead the rest of his army.
Shalya was not any ordinary warrior. He was regarded as the foremost among the Bahlikas (people of Madra and neighboring states, which some identify as Bactria). He had befriended King Pandu during his youth, and had given his sister Madri to Pandu as a gift of their friendship. This was part of a secret pact between the two friends who treated each other as equals. Pandu was known to be a great warrior, and someone who can be treated as an equal of Pandu is no ordinary warrior.
Shalya was also the King of Madras - which was, despite the later day efforts to tarnish its image, a prosperous and strong kingdom - and commanded one entire Akshauhini (almost 100,000 soldies) out of the 11 Akshauhinis that fought on the Kaurava side. This makes him almost equal in strength and importance with other leaders on Kaurava side - Bhagadatta, Bhoorishrava, Jayadratha, Kritavarma etc.
On the 18th day, most of these other leaders were long dead (except Kritavarma). Naturally Shalya had the great responsibility of holding the Kaurava forces together and also instilling confidence in them despite the impending signs of doom. Shalya was formidable and had already made his mark on the War. Many would not know, but Shalya was the first to draw blood at the start of the War. He was the one who killed Uttara Kumara - prince of Matsya, and son of Virata on the very first day of the War.
Shalya was also known to be very good with horses - the reason that Karna asked him to be his charioteer. This goes well with the theory that horses were not native animals in India, and that they were mostly brought from the north-west frontier regions. So it will not be far from truth to say that his taking charge of the army would have brought a ray of hope back into the Kaurava camp.
Knowing all this, Duryodhana made Shalya commander in chief after his friend Karna had failed and was killed. Duryodhana must have thought that since Shalya was also the maternal uncle of the younger Pandavas - Nakul and Sehdeva, it would be difficult for the Pandavas to face their own kin.
But that is where Yudhishthir's logical and reasonable mind came to Pandava's aid. For Yudhishthir, Shalya had already become part of the enemy camp. Here is why.
Yudhishthir knew that Shalya had the opportunity to join Pandavas in the war. In fact, he had started from his kingdom Madra to join Pandavas. But during the travel, Shalya found that there were excellent arrangements made for his army, especially near Hastinapur - food, water, shelter, all that is needed for a large army. Rather than finding out who arranged for all this, Shalya assumed that it was Yudhishthir who made the arrangements for him, and he offered his services to his host in exchange of these arrangements.
Consider this - Shalya offered his army and his support in 'exchange' - like barter. Shalya was not fighting a Dharmayudha. There was no right or wrong, dharma or adharma, friends or foes for him. Shalya was simply doing a commercial transaction - a thing that Karna later on rightly accused Shalya of. Even the fact that his own nephews were on the other side did not deter him from fighting a bloody battle against Pandavas, including being one of the first to actually kill someone of rank (Uttara Kumara). On the last day, too, Shalya took charge of the Kaurava army without remorse. So now he was not just a mere part of the enemy line. He WAS the enemy.
Shalya's decision to take charge of the Kaurava army must have really made Yudhishthir angry, and drew out the warrior in him. The battle that followed between the two was fierce. They were fighting with a purpose, and were equally matched.
Both warriors made their best and struck each other many times. Shalya covered Yudhishthir's chariot with arrows. Yudhishthir broke Shalya's mast. For a long time, the duel was indecisive, as both warriors were matched in strength and agility. K. M. Ganguly, in his excellent translation (one of the few literal and scholarly edited translations in English, albeit a few errors) - says - "Whether the son of Pritha (Yudhishthir) would enjoy the Earth, having slain Shalya, or whether Shalya having slain the son of Pandu would bestow the Earth on Duryodhana, could not be ascertained".
Both warriors were supported by other fighters on both sides. Shalya was aided by his brother and also Ashwatthama. Yudhishthir had Bhima and Nakula (even Shalya's actual nephew) to his aid. The battle went on throughout the morning. There was a time when Shalya was heavily wounded, and was taken away by Ashwatthama. At other times, Bhima had to cover Yudhishthir so that he gets some respite from the fight.
After a while, Shalya returned and the battle continued. Then, finally, Yudhishthir threw a heavy dart (spear) - his favorite weapon - and brought the great Shalya crashing down. Shalya fell down on the Earth, and that brought the end of the last formal general of Kauravas, as well as the sovereign king of Earth. *
By killing Shalya - the last standing true king of Earth - Yudhishthir made his rightful claim to the throne. It was a duel between equals, and by winning the battle with his might - without any kind of trickery (unlike those against Bhishma, Drona, Karna and even Duryodhana) - Yudhishthir upheld Dharma in its true sense.
As a side-note, it should be noted that the battle between Bhima and Duryodhana is actually an aftermath. Rather than fighting as a sovereign king like Shalya had done, Duryodhana took recourse of maya (trick), ran away from the battlefield and hid in a lake. His death at the hands of Bhima involved trickery, but that does not count as part of Dharmayudha anyway.
There have been some attempts in the modern tellings of the story, including - sadly - the one by Devdutta Pattnaik too (in the book called 'Jaya'), to underplay the battle between Yudhishthir and Shalya. According to these, and apparently this part is based on some folk versions and Indonesian retelling, but not the canonical version of the story - Shalya hosted a demon in his body. This demon would grow as strong as his opponent in any battle, and so the king was invincible in duels.
The story says that Nakula knew about this or rather he found out about it from his uncle himself. Pandavas realized that only Yudhishthir could kill Shalya as he approached Shalya as a nephew would approach his uncle - with reverence and peace. Thus instead of becoming powerful, Shalya's demon lost his power in front of Yudhishthir and then he could kill the great warrior easily. Apart from sounding like an old wives' tale and having many loose ends (like for instance - where did Shalya get this demon? How did it come into Shalya's body? Who was this demon? Apparently this was boon given to him by Lord Shiva. But even for a moment we accept that, more questions remain - If Yudhishthir came in peace, how come he managed to kill Shalya in the end when the demon was subdued?) --- this version does severe injustice to Yudhishthir and also does not sound anywhere close to the portrayals of both the kings. More that anything else, it gives a completely incorrect perspective on the overall philosophy of non-violence.
I prefer the original version better, for it is rightful, logical and makes complete sense befitting the overall ferocity of the Great War, and is a fitting ending to the episode from the time the Pandavas took their weapons down from the Shami tree for the purpose of winning the war.
Bali Pratipada, Kuala Lumpur, 15 November 2012
* This is one example of a slight error in KMG's translation. The Sanskrit verse says that even when Shalya fell on the Earth, (Raja) lakshmi did not leave him and he looked like a King. KMG translates lakshmi as 'beauty' - which is incorrect. --- "Though deprived of weapons and standard, and though his heart had been pierced, beauty did not yet seem to abandon the lifeless ruler of the Madras." (Shalya Parva, Section 17, # 463). But Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth - Sri. It is not about beauty, but about the splendor of a 'king' - that is the essence of the word.