Mahabharata Episode 55: Ashwatthama is Cursed

Ashwatthama is Cursed - Featured Image - Picture of a horse.

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 54: Ashwatthama Rages. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

A list of topics that we will cover:

Draupadi’s Resolve

While the Pandavas are surveying the damage left behind by Ashwatthama, Nakula brings Draupadi there in his chariot. The princess of Panchala is left aghast at what she sees, and for a while she sheds tears for the death of all the people of her race.

But then she gathers herself and approaches Yudhishthir.

‘O King,’ she says, ‘you have won the earth at great cost. Your friends are dead. Your sons are dead. Only your brothers and wife remain. You do not, I gather, recollect that your sons have been slaughtered by that wretch, Ashwatthama.

‘Not until you have claimed your vengeance upon the son of your preceptor can this war be considered finished. Until you take up your arms again, O King, and slay that man who slew all your dear ones, I shall not consider myself your wife.

‘Until that moment I shall sit here and perform severe austerities. I shall give up my life to prayer.’

Yudhishthir does not think that further violence is the answer to the situation. While he is dithering in his response, Draupadi turns to Vrikodara.

‘Remember the duties of a Kshatriya, Bhima,’ she tells him. ‘It behooves you to come to my rescue. It is known throughout the world how you came to the rescue of Varanavata when its denizens asked for your help.

‘Later, when we were attacked by Hidimba, you again exerted your powers to save us. You also saved my honour during our time in Virata’s kingdom. Now is another occasion for you to exact revenge, my lord.

‘Kill the son of Drona, that wicked Ashwatthama, and bring back his jewel to me as souvenir.’

Not able to endure his wife’s grief, Bhima mounts upon his chariot and takes up his bow. Making Nakula his charioteer, he sets out from the Pandava camp following the tracks left behind by Ashwatthama.

Krishna Mounts his Chariot

Afraid that Bhima may hurt himself by fighting Ashwatthama on his own, Krishna follows in his wake.

He mounts his chariot, which is equipped with all kinds of diverse weapons. Two horses of the Kamboja breed are yoked to it, and are adorned with garlands of gold.

The horse on the front-right is called Saivya whereas the one on the front-left is called Sugriva. The rear ones are named Meghapushpa and Balahaka respectively.

On this car which bears the colour of the rising sun, a celestial standard points up at the sky, decked with gems and gold, created by Vishwakarma. Upon this banner stands the image of Garuda, the son of Vinata, shining with great splendour.

After Krishna ascends this car, Arjuna and Yudhishthir climb into it as well and take their spots on either side of the Yadava prince. The three of them are taken at great speed to catch up with Bhimasena.

The Brahmashira

Meanwhile, the second Pandava, in his chariot being driven by Nakula, reaches the bank of River Ganga, where the island-born sage Vyasa is sitting in deep meditation, surrounded by a large conclave of rishis.

Amid them is Ashwatthama too, his entire body covered in dried blood and dust, his hand still holding on to the sword of Shiva.

When he sees Bhima approach, and the chariot of Krishna arrive from behind at the same time, he becomes agitated. He thinks that he has been cornered, that his moment of death has come.

So he recalls to mind the weapon called the Brahmashira (another name for the Brahmastra?) that his father had taught him, and breathes all that power into a blade of grass that he uproots from the ground.

With his powerful mantra a celestial weapon appears in his hand. And he whispers, ‘To the death of the Pandavas!’ As the weapon catches fire, and burns with the ferocity of Samvartaka, a perplexed Bhimasena draws an arrow from his quiver and sets it on his bow.

But Krishna is quick to bring Arjuna into the battle. ‘This is the time, O Falguna,’ he says. ‘That son of Drona has done even as I predicted he would. Now use the same weapon that your preceptor has given you, and cast it in its defensive form.’

Narada Appears

Thus addressed by Krishna, Arjuna takes out an arrow himself and places it on the tip of his nose with his eyes closed. He prays for the good of the son of Drona, of himself, of his brothers, of Krishna, of the assembled sages, of Ganga, and of the rest of the three worlds in that order.

Then he says, ‘May this wonderful weapon neutralize the chants of Ashwatthama.’

And he hurls it into the air.

At this point, Narada appears along with Vyasa, and the both of them admonish the two warriors. ‘Many great heroes took part in the war of Kurukshetra,’ they say, ‘but none of them used celestial weapons like this because they were wary of destroying the three worlds. Why do you, O heroes, act in such a rash manner?’

Arjuna is quick to yield. He calls back his weapon after assuring Narada that he only intended to protect the three worlds, not destroy them.

On the other hand, Ashwatthama lacks the requisite skill and purity of mind. Instead, he takes to blaming Bhimasena for his act.

‘I let go of my weapon only because I thought that that wicked Bhima is coming to kill me, O Sage,’ he says. ‘And now I dare not withdraw it. It has been contrived to take the lives of the Pandavas, and it shall return only after finishing its purpose.’

Vyasa thinks it over and suggests an alternative path.

Vyasa’s Advice

‘Arjuna is patient and honest,’ says Vyasa. ‘He knows that if a weapon such as the Brahmashira is neutralized by another celestial weapon, the surrounding area will be cursed by a twelve-year drought.

‘So, out of kindness to the living beings of this region, he has called back his weapon. As for you, you are not sufficiently skilled to do so. And yet the Pandavas must be protected. Arjuna must be protected.

‘Give them the gem that rests on your head, O Drauna. They have come to take it off you. If you do not give it of your own free will, they will take it after killing you. And then redirect the weapon toward the wombs of the Pandava women so that the sons of Pandu themselves are rescued.’

Ashwatthama does as he is told, and the moment that weapon is directed at the wombs of the Pandava women, all the wives of the five brothers – including Draupadi – are instantly cursed with infertility.

This has the potential to become a difficult problem, because even if the Pandavas marry other women, the curse would presumably continue to act on them. In essence, therefore, the Kuru line is cursed by this one act to become extinct.

Krishna’s Promise

Krishna, however, is cheerful. ‘Do not worry, Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘The daughter of Virata and the wife of Abhimanyu, Uttara, was once blessed by a Brahmin of pious vows during your time in Upaplavya.

‘“When the Kuru line ends,” he told her, “a son will be born to you who will be called Parikshit, who will ascend the throne and rule for many glorious years.” The words of that man will come true. You will have a successor to the throne when the son of Abhimanyu will claim it.’

But Ashwatthama is quick to rebut this notion. ‘What you say, O Kesava, out of partiality toward the Pandavas, will not come to pass,’ he says. ‘The weapon that I have sent will fall upon the womb of Uttara as well, and the foetus growing inside her will die this very moment.’

‘No doubt the foetus will die!’ thunders Krishna, his eyes blazing. ‘But he shall live again by my decree, and he shall rule for a long time indeed. He shall, on attaining his age, be trained in the knowledge of the Vedas and that of weapons by Kripacharya.

‘Having learnt the skill of arms and of polity, observant of all Kshatriya duties, he will rule the earth for sixty years.’

Curse on Ashwatthama

Krishna now turns his wrath onto the son of Drona. ‘As for you, Ashwatthama,’ he says, ‘all the wise men of Earth know that you are sinful and a coward. You are the slayer of sleeping men and of unborn children!

‘Unable to win the battle by fair means, you have taken to cutting off the neck of your enemy when he is asleep. For these sins you will wander over the earth for three thousand years hence, alone and friendless.

‘You will have no companions, O Drauna. You will roam over diverse countries, but you will have no place in the midst of men. The stench of pus and blood that you carry on your body now will never leave you.

‘Only dense forests and dreary moors will be your homes. With the weight of all diseases known to man falling upon your shoulders, you will drag your existence along the endless stretches of time, regretting every moment of it.’

Vyasa says, ‘You are a Brahmin by birth, Ashwatthama, but you have not acted like one. As such, you have never been a true Kshatriya either.

‘In the full sight of all these great men, you have resolved to cause the destruction of the world with your Brahmashira weapon. Due to all these faults, the words of the son of Devaki are warranted. Each of them will come true.’

Ashwatthama accepts the judgement with calm, perhaps realizing that there is nothing more he can do.

‘I shall stay with you for a while, O Sage,’ he tells Vyasa, ‘if you permit me. Let the words of the illustrious prince of Dwaraka come true, as you have decided. I shall accept my punishment with grace.’

Draupadi is Avenged

Ashwatthama peacefully hands over the jewel to the Pandavas, taking which they speed back to camp, where Draupadi is sitting in a pose of deep meditation. Bhimasena carries the stone to her, with the rest of the brothers forming a circle around them.

‘This jewel, my lady,’ he says, ‘is yours. The slayer of your sons has been vanquished. That wretched Duryodhana, that obstacle in our way to sovereignty, has been slain.

‘I have drunk the blood of Duhsasana when he was in the throes of death. We have paid off the debt we owed our enemy. The son of Drona, we have spared with life out of respect to our dead preceptor.

‘His fame has been destroyed. His life henceforth will be hell. His soul has been obliterated, O Panchali. Only his body remains, an empty shell. We have brought you his gemstone as prize. Take it and end your austerities.’

Draupadi gets up on her feet and bows to her husbands. Taking the jewel, she says, ‘The son of the preceptor is deserving of respect as much as the preceptor is. It is right of you to have spared him.’

She walks over to Yudhishthir and offers the gem to him. ‘Place this on your head, O King,’ she says, ‘and rule over the earth in great glory till the end of our days.’

That brings us to the end of Episode 55. In our next, we will see how and why Gandhari curses Krishna.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!