In the epic Mahabharata, King Salya (Sanskrit: शल्य, lit. pointed weapon) was the brother of Madri (mother of Nakula and Sahadeva), as well as the ruler of the Madra kingdom. A powerful yet righteous ruler, Shalya had a unique gift - he became stronger when faced with aggression, hence requiring everyone to be kind towards him. Salya, being a skilled archer, a powerful mace-fighter and formidable warrior, was tricked by Duryodana to fight the war on the side of the Kauravas. Shalya was an incredibly calm and deliberate fighter, which why he was such a good charioteer and why he could excel at mace-fighting despite his unimposing bulk. Krishna suggested that Yudhishthira should kill the powerful warrior because the eldest Pandava was not a man of aggression and could meet Shalya's coolness in battle.
Becoming Pandu's brother-in-law
On his way to Hastinapur, King Pandu encountered the army of Shalya. At parlay, Shalya and his general met with Pandu; Pandu was very impressed by Shalya's slight general. Shalya proposed that they could either decide the victor by war, or, by marriage. He then revealed that his general was none other than his sister Madri. Looking at her beauty, Pandu accepted the lady willingly and took her to Hastinapur, binding Madra's loyalty to Hastinapur.
Attempting to make Nakula and Sahadeva his heirs
Years after Madri had killed herself, Shalya, who each year, for a spell, brought his nephew's Nakula and Sahadeva to Madra, desired to make them his heirs. On their eighteenth birthday, Shalya revealed his intention to the twins. Shalya argued that Nakula could be a king one day, instead of fourth-in-line to the throne of Hastinapur...provided that Yudhishthira was named the crown prince in the first place. The wise Nakula pointed out that Shalya only wanted Nakula and Sahadeva as his heirs, because both were children of God-in fact, Shalya was eschewing his own children with this gambit. Nakula claimed that while he and Sahadeva staying with the Pandavas would give them no power, his brothers and Kunti genuinely loved him, and would never try and make Nakula and Sahadeva their pawns. Nakula realizes his mistake and the twins become the heirs of the Madra kingdom, but on one condition that they would always stay with their brothers.
Falling prey to Duryodhana's trick
After the Pandavas' exile, Shalya intended to visit them. When he heard of the impending Kurukshetra War, he marched forth with his army to join his nephews. On the way, Shalya was tricked by Duryodhana, who arranged a huge feast for Shalya and his men. When Shalya was impressed by the hospitality of his host who he mistakenly thought to be Yudhishthira, he offered to be at his host's service. Unable to turn down Duryodhana's request to join the Kauravas, Shalya met Yudhishthira and apologized for his mistake. Nakula and Sahadeva became enraged, saying that Shalya had truly proven that the Nakula and Sahadeva weren't real brothers to the Pandavas, but only step-brothers. Yudhishthira quickly stepped in and reprimanded the twins, commanding that they were never to again cheapen their relationship by saying they were "step" brothers. At this point, Shalya realized he had underestimated their brotherly bond.
Knowing that Shalya was a great charioteer and forecasting that Shalya would someday be asked to be the charioteer of Karna, Yudhishthira extracted a vow from Shalya to the effect that Shalya would demoralize Karna and dampen his spirits. Shalya assured the Pandavas that he would do everything possible to dampen Karna's spirits.
During the Kurukshetra War
Prior to the start of the war, Yudhishthira met with his elders on the Kaurava side, asking for their blessings. Shalya readily gave his blessings to Yudhishthira, blessing him with victory.
War with Uttar Kumara
Having entered the war reluctantly, Shalya confronted many great warriors and killed them. Shalya killed Abhimanyu’s brother-in-law, Uttar Kumara on the first day of the war. Uttar Kumara was the son of King Virāta, who with Arjuna’s help, had defeated the Kaurava army that had invaded the Virāta kingdom. Uttar Kumara then had been Arjuna’s charioteer. Shalya killed the boy with his spear, displaying fantastic skill, and he saluted Uttar's brave death. Later, Abhimanyu took revenge by killing Shalya’s brother and disabling Shalya himself so badly that the great warrior could not even move in Dronacharya’s circular formation.
Fourteenth day of battle
On the fourteenth day of battle, Shalya was charged with keeping Jayadratha away from Arjuna. Shalya attempted to check Arjuna's advance. Arjuna responded by tying Shalya's to his chariot using his arrows, much in the same way Abhimanyu had done the day before.
Last three days of the war
On the 17th day of the war, Shalya served as Karna's charioteer during the latter's battles with Arjuna, while continuously praising the Pandava prince and citing Karna's shortcomings. He aims the Naga astra at Arjuna. Shalya interrupts, telling Karna to aim at Arjuna's chest. Disgusted at Shalya's constant praise of Arjuna, Karna thinks that that advice must be inaccurate, and aims at Arjuna's head. Krishna pushes Arjuna's chariot into the ground. During that day Karna spares Nakula and Sahadeva, saying that they are younger and not his equals, therefore not deserving of death by his hands. Against his will, Shalya finds his respect for Karna growing. Still desiring Arjuna's victory, he continues to deride Karna, and doesn't come to Karna's aid when, during the epic fight with Arjuna, Karna's chariot-wheel gets stuck in the mud (as was prophesied). In the end, Arjuna kills an unarmed and disadvantaged Karna with the Anjalika weapon.
While reporting the events to a desolate Duryodhana, Shalya cannot help but rage at Arjuna for his cowardice, while praising Karna's character. Though he was reluctant to be Karna's charioteer, considering it a slight that a kshatriya should serve a charioteer's son, Shalya concludes that Karna's conduct not only proves that he belongs on the battlefield, but proves that Karna is one of the foremost fighters of his time.
After Karna's death, Shalya, now impassioned to fight for the Kaurava cause, takes over as the commander of the Kaurava forces, rallying them from retreat. Shalya was commander-in-chief on the last day of the war. Near the end of the battle, he was killed by Yudhishthira in spear-combat. Ashwatthama was appointed the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army after his death.
- Ganguly, Kisari. "The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa".
- Menon, [translated by] Ramesh (2006). The Mahabharata : a modern rendering. New York: iUniverse, Inc. ISBN 9780595401888.
- Menon, [translated by] Ramesh (2006). The Mahabharata : a modern rendering. New York: iUniverse, Inc. p. 151. ISBN 9780595401888.
- Srivastava, Vishnulok Bihari (2009). Dictionary of Indology. New Delhi: Hindoology Books. ISBN 9788122310849.