The day broke reluctantly, as both sides prepared to watch the spectacular battle between the master and his masterly pupil, the hunter and the hunted, the vengeful father and the dutiful commander.
Drona knew it would be futile to attempt to save Jayadratha. In his arsenal Arjuna had weapons that could seek out a specific person and kill him, even if he was hidden several stories deep underground. Should the need arise, with moments to go for sunset, Arjuna would use those weapons, and there was nothing Dronacharya could do. The weapon would be invisible to anyone but those blessed with night vision – animals, birds, and the small army of Ghatotkacha. Nobody else, not even the mighty Krishna would be able to see it in action. It required extreme concentration to summon that weapon and release it. There was only one man who could summon that kind of concentration on demand, in the middle of a raging battle. And that man was possessed today, seething at the death of his son. But something told Drona Arjuna did not need that weapon today. Jayadratha was a boisterous man, unrestrained in his pomposity, and eager to show his face. He believed a true Kshatriya should never be subtle. As soon as he believed that the sun had set, Jayadratha, without waiting for the signal from Drona, would rear his head in celebration, and Arjuna would impale him instantly. And Drona knew exactly at what instant Jayadratha would believe that the sun had set.
But the acharya was going to remain true to his duty. As long as Jayadratha remained hidden, he would protect him. He was going to make this the ultimate test to Arjuna’s prowess. If his favorite pupil was going to kill his ward, he would have to earn that kill. He was going to make Arjuna sweat his every move. He was going to frustrate the mighty Partha, and attempt to break him.
At the west end of the battlefield, an old man sat crosslegged, in deep meditation, in front of a giant banyan tree. Vridhakshatra loved his son to death. He raised him to be a brat; a conceited, arrogant prince who thought he could acquire anything he laid his eyes on – land, gold, or women. His son’s immodest nature appealed to the Kaurava Duryodhana, who saw in his brother-in-law a reflection of himself. Duryodhana quickly welcomed Jayadratha, and the two became very good friends. Even though Jayadratha’s roving eye pinched Duryodhana, their shared desire for Draupadi made him tolerant of his philandering brother-in-law. Vridhakshatra heard about Arjuna’s vow and decided to be there for his son. He knew it was impossible to escape from the mighty Pandava. But he had hope. His son had performed miracles in the past, coming very close to abducting and making Draupadi his wife, only to be thwarted at the last minute. Perhaps he could survive today, and Vridhakshatra can witness first hand the inglorious death of the one man he hated. He sat in silence, in prayer, waiting for the sun to set behind him.
As the day wore on, it was obvious to the Pandavas where Jayadratha was. Bhima and Drishtadyumna began clearing the way for Arjuna to approach Dronacharya. The Pandavas warriors faced tough resistance from the formidable perimeter formed around the acharya. Partha’s chauffeur, however, expertly steered his steeds past the narrow alleyways of soldiers towards the west end of the battlefield, where he knew Jayadratha hid. He knew the reason the Kauravas hid him to the west. The battle would go deep and late today, almost to dusk. If Jayadratha was to the east, he would be facing west, and against the setting sun his face would easily reveal itself. But now, with the sun behind him, it was possible for Arjuna to mistake any silhouette for Jayadratha, and possibly kill an impostor. Krishna smiled at this absurdity. Arjuna could pick and pierce through a bird’s eye in pitch darkness. Anyways, today he didn’t need darkness.
As the cousins’ chariot scythed through the enemy formation and approached the far end of the field, the skies began to turn dark. The Pandava army watched anxiously as the sun sank fast into the western sky. Were they going to lose their champion today? Peripheral battles paused to look in the direction of Arjuna’s chariot. The entire battlefield came to a standstill. Men perched on top of their chariots to look west. With the best views, mahouts stopped their pachyderms and relayed live Arjuna’s progress to foot soldiers. High up above their heads, the sky went from bright yellow to dark red to deathly blue in the matter of minutes. A giant hungry ball began to gobble up the sun. Drona, seeing his beloved pupil’s chariot approach fast, pushed his and his charge’s chariots further back. They were now at the edge of the field, only a single line of soldiers blocking Arjuna. Drona saw Jayadratha behind him, and Vridhakshatra further back. The father opened his eyes, with a smile on his face, seeing the darkened skies, and with it, Arjuna’s defeat.
Arjuna’s chariot easily cleaved through the single line of soldiers, and slowed down, facing the two chariots of Drona and Jayadratha. Dead silence. Swarms of birds began their commute back home. The odd cricket chirped. Warriors reached for their evening conches, to signal the end of day’s battles. Arjuna looked at his chauffeur, who smiled and slowly positioned his vehicle in a way that the prey and his father were in a straight line. He calmly whispered, “bring out your fireball, my friend. It is almost time”.
As the conches began to blow, Jayadratha exulted, opening his arms and throwing his weapons away, “This is your end Kunti’s son. You lose. The sun has set. Go home and die”. But no sooner than he finished his sentence, the conches stopped. The darkness that engulfed the land began to clear. The skies began to turn gentle red and then to bright yellow. As the moon began to release its victim from and the total solar eclipse began to end, the biggest orb in the sky regained its power. With it came light, and shock among the soldiers. Jayadratha’s head turned pale seeing the darkness eclipse fast. It was at this time that he saw it coming. A swirling arrow so swift and precise, that it passed the acharya before he could lift his bow, with the tip catching fire as it passed him. The fire grew quickly as it pierced through Jayadratha’s neck, beheading him at once, separating it from the torso. It didn’t stop there. The burning arrow carried the ghastly head of Duryodhana’s brother-in-law past his chariot, towards the terrified head of Vridhakshatra. It entered the old man’s gaping mouth, drilling through, sliding Jayadratha’s head back on its shaft, and lodged itself into the trunk of the giant tree behind. The arrow burned for a few moments before exploding, blowing both heads to smithereens.
There were thousands on the field that did not witness the killing. But the few that did, would never forget it. The precision, the brilliance, and the cold execution drew gasped breaths. It was difficult not to admire the skill. It was difficult not to dread this man.
Arjuna lowered the bow in his right hand down, having known that if he had released the arrow with his right hand, it would have found his acharya first, and there would be three heads on that shaft. It was not his job kill Drona. His commander-in-chief was bred just for that purpose.