You know of the time that Arjuna faced off the divine Gandharvas and managed to save Duryodhana’s life (if not, read the full story here). But here’s the TLDR version. In the tenth year of their exile, Duryodhana decided to rub in his status as a prince in the faces of the exiled Pandavas, who were living a life of penury, moving from forest to forest, hunting and just about making do with whatever they got. It had been a huge step down for Yudhishthira who was once the crown prince of the kingdom, but also for the other siblings, as well as Draupadi and Kunti who were used to a life of great comfort.
To prove a point, Duryodhana arrived in the same forest where the Pandavas were camping and made a show of his riches. As it happened, Chitrasena, a Gandharva, was also camping with his party in the same forest. In the Hindu mythology, Gandharvas are musicians in the court of Indra who were also renowned warriors. The two parties clashed over some trivial reason and before long, a full-blown battle began. Soon, Chitrasena overpowered the Kaurava army and took Duryodhana as hostage.
The few Kaurava soldiers begged the Pandavas to intervene and rescue their king. On Yudhishthira’s orders, and despite their reservations, the four siblings went off to fight the celestial beings who, if they wished, could turn invisible to the human eye. After a pitch battle, Arjuna managed to overpower Chitrasena and rescued Duryodhana. Obviously, this became a matter of shame for the Kaurava prince who had to grant Arjuna a boon in return.
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Cut to a few years later when the Kaurava and the Pandava armies faced off each other in the war of the century. There are several stories about the Mahabharata war but very few explore the dichotomy of the elders – Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Bhishma et al – who were clearly torn between the two warring cousins.
These powerful men didn’t just have a soft spot for the Pandavas, deep down they also believed that Yudhishthira’s claim to the throne wasn’t misplaced. Yet, their entire life, they served at the pleasure of Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapur, and hence owed their allegiance to the kingdom. And so, left with little choice, they had to fight on the side of their king, who in this case, supported his son Duryodhana.
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Even so it was quite clear, most of all to Duryodhana, that even though he had this battery of the greatest warriors in the land on his side, they were consciously or subconsciously, holding themselves back. For instance, Dronacharya wielded the dreaded Bramhastra that could’ve wiped out the entire Pandava army in a single stroke. Bhishma too wielded several divine weapons, which if he used, could’ve finished off the Pandavas on the first day of the war itself. And yet neither had shown any inclination of using these weapons.
And so while the war dragged on, Duryodhana’s anger only grew. Finally, he confronted Bhishma and accused him of pulling punches and, not-so-gently, reminded him of his duty as a Kshatriya to the kingdom he’d vowed to serve. Ultimately, Bhishma agreed to fashion out five arrows, one each for the five Pandavas and he promised to use them the next day to kill them on the battlefield. Happy with the development but still distrustful of his great-granduncle, Duryodhana took away the arrows back to his tent for safekeeping.
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Krishna, who learnt of this development, reminded Arjuna of the boon that Duryodhana had once owed him for saving his life and asked Arjuna to ask those arrows as a payback. The Kaurava prince was stunned at the fact that Arjuna even knew of these arrows but had no option but to give them away as it was his duty as a Kshatriya to live up to his promise.
Flummoxed, Duryodhana went back to Bhishma and ordered him to create five more arrows but the old warrior laughed. As it turned out, Bhishma had indeed put all his powers into those arrows and fashioning out five more would’ve been impossible. This left Duryodhana very distraught and the Pandavas lived to fight another day.