This is how the diabolical Duryodhana got Pandavas’ uncle, Shalya, to fight for him in the great war.
As far as epics go, Mahabharata is perhaps the most fascinating. On the surface, the epic narrates the tale of two sets of siblings and their fight for the throne. Yet, the 13,000-odd pages epic – Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition of The Mahabharata has been compiled by its scholars who compared various manuscripts and produced this 19-volume tome – has multiple stories-within-stories that tend to get hidden under the overarching narrative of the warring cousins. Of course, all these stories tie in to the big story – that of the Kauravas and the Pandavas – and all the characters in these smaller stories play an important part in taking the narrative forward.
One such story is that of Shalya, the maternal uncle to the Pandavas, specifically Nakula and Sahadeva. Shalya was the king of Madra, a kingdom that Pandu of Hastinapur sought an alliance with. Bhishma, who had heard of Shalya’s sister Madri, suggested the alliance be formalised through a wedding. It is thus that Madri becomes Pandu’s second wife and goes on to deliver twins – Nakula and Sahadeva – the youngest of the Pandavas.
Shalya has a soft spot for the Pandavas, yes, but especially his nephews – they were said to be demi gods after all – and proposes the idea of leaving his kingdom to them after his passing. Hesitant at first, the twins agree. However, the ill-fated game of dice changes the course of their lives. At first, they go into exile and then spend a year incognito as per the punishment that Duryodhana had meted out to them.
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When it becomes clear to everyone that a war is about to break out, lines are drawn and everyone is forced to pick a side. Except Balrama who considered Duryodhana his friend but also couldn’t fight his brother Krishna, all kings align themselves with one of the two parties.
Shalya too enlists himself in the war effort and marches to Hastinapur with his troops with the intention of fighting on the side of his nephews, the Pandavas.
On his way to the capital, he and his troops partake of a feast that had been prepared for them. Impressed with the hospitality, Shalya grants his host a boon assuming that it was Yudishthira who had arranged for the feast. When he calls for his host, he’s horrified to see Duryodhana emerging. Having no choice but to honour his word, Shalya agrees to fight on behalf of the Kauravas.
Nakula and Sahdeva are, of course, furious when they hear of this and accuse him of trying to drive a wedge between them and their step-brothers. However, Yudishthira calms the situation and urges Shalya to fight for the Pandavas in spirit. Shalya apologises to the Pandavas and joins the enemy ranks.
While he does kill his fair share of princes from the Pandava army, Shalya’s greatest contribution to the Pandava cause comes not in the form of a physical weapon but a psychological attack that he launches against Karna.
You see, to rub salt in his wounds, Duryodhana assigns Shalya as Karna’s charioteer. This was supposed to humiliate him and the Pandavas who had an affinity to remind Karna of his humble origins as a charioteer’s son. However, this turns out to be a big mistake.
Throughout his time as Karna’s charioteer, Shalya keeps singing praises of Arjuna’s archery skills thus demotivating him. In the ultimate battle, when Karna’s chariot wheel gets stuck in the earth, Shalya refuses to change it claiming that as a prince and a king he’d never had to do such a menial job. Karna disembarks to remove his chariot from the mud and falls prey to Arjuna’s arrow.
On the 18th day of the war, after all the generals of the Kaurava army had fallen, Duryodhana makes Shalya the commander-in-chief. It is in this role that Shalya steps up and puts up an impassioned fight for the Kauravas even though it was all too late by then.
However, Shalya’s threat remains real and Krishna ultimately suggests to Yudishthira to take him on in a one-on-one combat. Shalya was known to be a patient and calm warrior and Krishna argues that while their side had several great warriors none was as calm as the eldest Pandava.
It is thus that Yudishthira and Shalya face off in a spear combat where the latter is defeated and killed. With the death of the last commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army, the Kurukshetra war effectively comes to an end, even as Duryodhana flees the battlefield.
As we know, eventually Bhima deals a fatal blow to the Kaurava prince clearing Yudhishthira’s way to the throne.