The sweatband around Duryodhana’s forehead had grown heavy with perspiration. Salty water dripped and smarted the imperial prince’s eyes. He tore off the sweat-soaked bandage and fastened a fresh cloth around his head. His opponent, Balarama, elder brother to Krishna of the Vrishnis, the most powerful of the Yadu clans, tied a new cloth above his brow.

Balarama downed a large flask of water, wiped his thick moustache with the back of a hand and heaved his gada—mace—onto his broad, sweaty shoulder. He said,

“Shall we recommence?”

“With your blessings, O Mahaguru, your humble student will do his best,” said Duryodhana. Master and student had been duelling for several hours since sunrise. Their attendants sat cross-legged on the sandy ground of the exercise square, ready to do any bidding from their masters.

The Vrishni lord swung, but the Kaurava prince stepped back. The former’s mace cut through the air about a palm’s width from the latter’s face.

“You’ve become faster,” said Balarama. “Attention.” He lunged again; aimed low for the knees. Duryodhana leaped high; legs folded tight. He brought his mace down, hard. But Balarama swung with his momentum; deflected his student’s attack.

“Who are the best mace fighters?” said Duryodhana. He circled his sparring partner.

“Bheema. Kichaga. Shalya,” said Balarama.

In a flash, Duryodhana attacked. His mace connected with his teacher’s weapon; smashed it to pieces. But Balarama dropped to the ground; gave a sweeping kick; caught Duryodhana’s ankle. The prince fell, but rolled with the momentum and stood up, ready with his mace.

“Kichaga is dead. Do you hold Bheema and Shalya as better than me?” said Duryodhana.

The Vrishni lord dived forward; grabbed the Kaurava prince’s mace. They pushed. Feet dug into the sand. The men grunted. But neither one made progress. In strength, the older Vrishni matched the younger Kaurava.

“You’re stronger and better skilled than Shalya.”

“What about Bheema?” said Duryodhana. He stepped aside abruptly; caught his master by surprise. The latter tumbled forward; somersaulted on the ground and picked up a new mace.

“Bheema is strong,” said Balarama. “You can’t match him in strength. No one in Bharata can match that bull’s strength.”

With a roar, Duryodhana raised his mace and charged. His teacher deflected, but again, the student broke the former’s mace.

“Well done! I am pleased you’re a better mace wielder than your teacher.” In an instant, Balarama grabbed and threw half a dozen maces. The flurry of flying irons caught his student unaware; but only for a moment. Duryodhana ducked and deflected the heavy, somersaulting missiles. The Vrishni lord caught his breath and said, “But in skill with the mace and in agility, no one can match you.”

“Not even Bheema?”

“Bheema is strong, but he is slow and not as skilled as you.”

“I submit to your mastery of tutelage, O Mahaguru. You planted the seed and nurtured the sapling. With your blessings, this tree will continue to flourish.” The Kaurava prince went down on his knees and received his teacher’s blessing.

“Your skills make me proud, O Favourite Student of Mine,” said Balarama. “In recent weeks, you’ve visited Dvaraka several times. Each time you came to pay respects to your teacher. I’m pleased but also suspect there is a motive to your visits. I welcome you to reveal your intentions. But first, let’s recover from our exertions.”

Teacher and student sat down in the shade. Attendants served drinks; warm water, which did not jar the body’s temperature; sprinkled with herbs to replace the lost body salt. The royals stripped to their loin clothes and lay on cool stone slabs. Masseurs rubbed down and set about massaging the lord and the prince.

“Why does Prince Krishna avoid me?” said Duryodhana. “Three times I tried to meet the prince and three times I failed.”

“Duryodhana, you know my brother does not like to be addressed as prince. But I sense some disappointment and even anger for you to resort to a royal title long discarded.” It was common knowledge that Krishna had renounced kingship and if premature death visited Balarama, the latter’s son will ascend the throne.

“You’re right, my Mahaguru. With my affairs, he is unwilling to give me even a few moments of his time.”

Balarama had refused to take sides in the quarrel between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. But his younger brother, Krishna, has shown a marked bias in favour of the Pandavas. When Duryodhana offered to marry Subhadra to seal an alliance, Balarama had supported the idea, but Krishna thwarted it. The latter intervened and convinced his father, King Vasudeva, to give her in marriage to Arjuna. The alliance strengthened the relationship between the Pandavas and the Yadus at the expense of the Kauravas.

“Fret not, Duryodhana.” Balarama rolled onto his stomach. His body servant smoothed oil and kneaded his back. In between grunts, the lord said, “I now know the purpose of your visits. Once we’ve bathed and fulfilled our study hour, we shall lunch and I’ll escort you to my brother’s palace. He will see you.”

“Your plan will fulfil my desire, O Mahaguru. And I remain indebted to your love and generosity.” Duryodhana rolled onto his stomach and his man servant massaged the prince’s muscular back. “Do you have a topic in mind we could discuss with your teachers for our study hour?”

“Passion, like goodness and ignorance, affects all of us here in the material world,” said Balarama. “Passion gives impetus for action. But fruitive action distances us from goodness and hence our God, our Overself. Can there be action without fruition; without consequences, good or bad? These are vexing questions and I hope my teachers can light a wick.”

“Forgive me, O Mahaguru. I’ve yet to delve into these matters. But I’ll be honoured to sit at your feet and hear the wisdom of your teachers. The discussions and revelations will be like rain on parched land.”

***

It was after the lunch break. Unlike kings who attended court matters in the afternoon, Krishna was enjoying a nap in his garden. Even when asleep, he was alert. His ethereal form travelled the worlds and simultaneously hovered near his corporeal body. He saw everything; heard everything; smelled and felt everything. If he wished, he could even read the thoughts of anyone who came close. But he never resorted to such intrusions, for it would be against the laws of the cosmos.

Lord Balarama and Imperial Prince Duryodhana sat beside Krishna and waited for him to awake. An attendant appeared and whispered in the lord’s ears. It was time for him to attend court. Balarama excused himself and departed.

Left alone, Duryodhana grew bored. Overcome by fatigue from the morning’s strenuous duel and a heavy lunch, he dozed off. Krishna smiled in his sleep.

“Begging your pardon, O Imperial Prince.” A courtier bowed and whispered; announced a visitor. Arjuna, the third Pandava brother, had arrived to meet Krishna.

*** Copyright @ 2021, Eric Alagan ***

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