But instead he beheads himself and offers himself as a sacrifice....
This is the story of Barbarik, a little known character in the Mahabharata who could’ve ended the war in merely a minute.
Barbarik was the grandson of Bhima. His father was Ghatotkacha, the son of Bhima and Hidimbi. Ghatotkacha was a giant who participated in the war and fought on the side of the Pandavas. He fell to the arrows of Karna, specifically, the Shakti weapon that Karna was granted with the condition that he could use it just once.
Barbarik, however, never fought the war. In fact he died even before the war began. More precisely, he sacrificed himself. Here’s the reason why.
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As a child Barbarik was a brave warrior who learn the art of warfare from his mother. He was also a devotee of Shiva who granted him three special arrows with powers beyond all measure. Arjuna, Karna and the likes did years of penance had managed to secure the deadliest weapons on earth and had spent years learning how to use them. Yet even the entire arsenal of divine and human weapons would be no match for Barbarik’s three arrows.
The three arrows had special powers: the first one would mark all the things Barbarik wanted to destroy, the second would mark all the things he wanted to save, and the third arrow would simply destroy the targets that had been marked. Unlike the Bramhastra, which was something of a weapon of mass destruction, Barbarik’s arrows were clinical in their precision.
When he heard that his grandfathers had set out to battle against the Kaurava princes, Barbarik set out from home to watch the battle. He promised his mother that if he would intervene, he would only fight on the losing side.
Meanwhile, Krishna was going about asking all warriors how long they’d take to complete the war if it were left to them. Bhishma said 20 days, Karna said 24 days, Dronacharya 25 days, and Arjuna said it would take him 28 days to finish the war and emerge victorious.
When he asked Barbarik – and Krishna was in disguise when he did so – he replied that it would take him a minute. For that is how long his arrows would take to mark their targets, keep his allies safe and eliminate the ones marked for death.
Krishna asked on whose side Barbarik was planning on fighting to which the young warrior recounted the promise he’d made to his mother. The assumption was that he would fight with the Pandavas who had a relatively smaller army compared to the Kauravas.
However, Krishna pointed out that there was no way Barbarik could ever be on a losing side since by virtue of his arrows, the side Barbarik chose would end up being the winning side. And so Barbarik would have to spend the entire duration of the battle switching sides and killing warriors from both sides before ending up as the sole survivor.
Horrified, by the implications of his promise to his mother Barbarik was also confounded. Krishna offered a way out. Tradition demanded that the battlefield required the head of the bravest Kshatriya to be sanctified. And so to avoid a complete and total annihilation, Barbarik offered his head using which the battlefield was sanctified and the war began.