Ashwatthama is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the son of Drona, the preceptor of the Kauravas and Pandavas.
Ashwatthama’s most salient act in the story is to conduct a night-time raid on the eighteenth day of the Kurukshetra war. On this mission, he singlehandedly massacres the entirety of the Panchala army.
Throughout his life, he finds himself trapped in the Kaurava-Pandava conflict. Like his father Drona, he is loyal to the Kuru dynasty, and chooses to fight on Duryodhana’s side in the war.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
How was Ashwatthama born?
Ashwatthama is born to Drona and Kripi shortly after Drona graduates from his period of learning at the hermitage of Bharadwaja.
Kripi is the sister of Kripacharya. The siblings are found by King Shantanu and are fostered at the royal palace of Hastinapur. How Drona meets Kripi is not told to us explicitly, but we can imagine that Bharadwaja may have had some contact with the Kuru dynasts.
Shortly after their marriage, Kripi accompanies Drona to his humble dwelling – somewhere in the Kuru kingdom. Drona ekes out a living as a Brahmin would: by teaching the Vedas and by performing religious ceremonies for people.
By all accounts, though, Drona’s skills do not seem to align very well with this life. He struggles to make ends meet.
When the couple have their son, it is said that the infant immediately begins to cry with the voice of a horse. That is why he is given the name: Ashwatthama.
Poverty and Migration
Brahmins of Vedic India are not known to be a particularly wealthy lot, but most of them managed to do well enough for themselves, because they often had access to powerful people.
Generally speaking, most Brahmins found patronage under kings or noblemen, performing sacrifices and rituals for them in exchange for wealth and status.
In Drona’s case, it appears that his skills as a Brahmin are not terribly in demand, because the fundamental feature of Ashwatthama’s life as a young boy is extreme poverty.
In fact, we are told that Kripi routinely gives her son powdered rice mixed in water to make it seem like milk. This suggests that they were so poor that they could not afford to (a) have a cow of their own, and (b) trade Drona’s services for milk in the neighbourhood.
The reasons for this are unclear. It might just be that Drona’s ambitions are more worldly than the average Brahmin’s. His childhood friendship with Drupada may have influenced him to think of wealth and status as worthy ambitions.
In any case, after receiving Parashurama’s weapons as gift, Drona decides that enough is enough, and that his family will be better off at a royal palace.
Their first port of call is Panchala, where Drupada humiliates Drona. Drona then makes for Hastinapur, where he suspects that Kripacharya will welcome them more warmly.
Ashwatthama thus finds himself in the court of Hastinapur when Drona becomes preceptor to the Kuru princes.
Friendship with Duryodhana
Ashwatthama grows up accompanying the Pandava and Kaurava princes, but he is naturally drawn more toward Duryodhana.
During the incident of Duryodhana poisoning Bhima, we are told that Ashwatthama is also part of the plot. During the Kuru graduation ceremony, when Duryodhana walks out in protest at Arjuna’s performance, Ashwatthama goes with him.
Two possibilities exist as to why this might be so: the first is of course that Ashwatthama found himself more aligned with Duryodhana for implicit reasons. After all, there is no accounting for tastes.
The other possibility is that Duryodhana actively sought to make friends with Ashwatthama, with the idea that being close to the preceptor’s son might confer advantages – b0th in the present and the future.
(As it happens, this does turn out to be true. As an adult, Duryodhana brags: ‘Drona will never leave Ashwatthama’s side, and Ashwatthama is loyal to me.’)
How strong or powerful was Ashwatthama?
The strength and power of Ashwatthama, therefore, seems to be the influence that he wields with respect to Drona. Since Drona is hopelessly in love with his son, controlling Ashwatthama is a powerful method by which to control Drona.
Now, Ashwatthama is a powerful warrior in his own right. There’s no denying that. But he seems to carry about him a reputation for being temperamentally unsuited to being a fighter.
When Bhishma and Duryodhana have the ‘rathas and atirathas’ conversation just before the war, when the topic of Ashwatthama comes up, Bhishma says much the same thing.
‘The son of Drona can fight as skilfully as an atiratha on one day, and lose to a ratha on the next,’ he says. ‘He is a queer mixture of courage and cowardice, of nobility and dishonour, of humility and pride.’
Bhishma therefore places Ashwatthama somewhere between a ratha and an atiratha. The general consensus seems to be that his skills are right up there with the best, but he does not have the mental capabilities of the great heroes.
One other advantage that Ashwatthama brings to the table is the power of his austerities. Chiefly, he is known to be one of Lord Shiva’s favourite devotees.
Partiality from Drona
Not surprisingly, during Drona’s early days as the preceptor of the Kuru princes, he gives special treatment to his son Ashwatthama.
Ashwatthama receives from Drona one-to-one lessons that the other Kuru princes do not get. Arjuna, in fact, notices that Ashwatthama is being tutored in the evenings by Drona, and resolves to become Drona’s favoured pupil.
Despite this partiality, there is no evidence that Ashwatthama becomes the best archer in the group. That honour goes eventually to Arjuna, who combines natural flair for archery with a fervent work ethic to race ahead of everyone else.
When Drona sees that Arjuna is by far the most promising of the princes, he becomes better disposed toward the third Pandava.
Also, Arjuna saves Drona’s life once from an alligator-infested lake. All of this leads Drona to gradually replace Ashwatthama with Arjuna in his mind as the favourite.
However, it must be said that while Drona believes Arjuna to be his favourite pupil, Ashwatthama is still Drona’s favourite person. His overall loyalties lie entirely with his son.
But it is possible that thus nuance escapes the young Ashwatthama (though he may have appreciated it as an adult). It is likely that while growing up, Ashwatthama might have been envious of Arjuna for stealing his father’s affections.
And that envy might have contributed to why Ashwatthama decides to dislike Arjuna, which in explains his friendship with Duryodhana.
King of Northern Panchala
After the Kuru princes’ graduation ceremony, Drona gives his wards a real-life project. He asks them to invade Panchala, and to bring back King Drupada as prisoner to Hastinapur.
Ashwatthama accompanies Duryodhana, Karna and the other Kauravas for the first battle against Panchala – a battle that they lose. Then the Pandavas launch another attack that is successful – largely due to the efforts of Arjuna and Bhima.
When Drupada is brought back to Hastinapur, Drona takes North Panchala for himself, and leaves Drupada to rule over South Panchala.
In essence, therefore, this expedition breaks Panchala into two parts, one of which is given to Drona to rule.
(There are many different speculative versions of how this invasion of Panchala came to be. More on this topic in this post: Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala.)
Drona immediately takes up the administrative role of ruling Northern Panchala, with his capital at Ahichchatra.
Though it is never explicitly stated so, it is conceivable – even likely – that Ashwatthama, as Drona’s only son, also plays an important role in ruling this part of Panchala.
In time, he might have even become acting king of Northern Panchala, though it is nothing more than a tribute-paying vassal state to Kuru.
Did Ashwatthama oppose Draupadi Vastraharan?
During Draupadi Vastraharan, Drona is present in the hall but Ashwatthama isn’t.
Or at the very least, he is not mentioned. He does not take any part in the matter. Our best guess is that while Drona is here to attend the dice game, Ashwatthama has stayed back to attend to his ruling duties in Ahichchatra.
But that is not to say that we cannot tell for sure if Ashwatthama opposed Draupadi’s disrobing or not. We can make educated guesses based on his behaviour leading up to the event and after it.
We know for a fact, for instance, that Ashwatthama is more loyal to Duryodhana than Drona is. So, given that Drona himself does not oppose Draupadi’s disrobing in practice (though he does in principle), we can surmise that had Ashwatthama been present in the hall, he would not have stood up against Duryodhana either.
During the years following Draupadi’s humiliation, Ashwatthama does not once publicly denounce it.
This is perhaps understandable, because criticising Duryodhana publicly in this matter would have had negative political consequences for Ahichchatra. As its ruler, therefore, Ashwatthama may have been taking the prudent route.
Or he may have agreed with Duryodhana, and thought there was no injustice in the way the Pandavas were treated.
For all effective purposes, therefore, we must say that Ashwatthama did not oppose Draupadi’s vastraharan.
Did Ashwatthama hate the Pandavas?
Ashwatthama does not hate the Pandavas so much as he is loyal to the Kauravas. Therefore, in the Pandava-Kaurava conflict, he sides with Duryodhana because all his wealth and status is dependent on the Kuru treasury.
His feelings toward the Kauravas is similar to Drona’s, who is also acutely aware that the Kuru house was responsible for pulling him and his family out of poverty.
If Bhishma had not given Drona the job of being royal preceptor, the family of Drona would never have become wealthy.
If the Kuru house had not approved the invasion of Panchala, and the gift of Northern Panchala to Drona, Ashwatthama would never have become de facto ruler of a mid-sized kingdom.
And as the immediate neighbour to Kuru, Ashwatthama would have been always aware of the power-relationship between himself and the Kauravas.
If Ashwatthama had taken the Pandavas’ side, would Duryodhana allow Northern Panchala to remain under Ashwatthama’s control?
All of these factors play into Ashwatthama’s feelings. During the war, when Duryodhana accuses Ashwatthama of displaying partiality toward the Pandavas, he firmly denies the charge.
‘Yes, my father and I love the Pandavas as much as we love you, O King,’ he says. ‘But it is not true that we are loyal to them. Our loyalties lie entirely with you.’
So while we can say that Ashwatthama does not hate the Pandavas, his loyalty to the Kauravas means that he often performs actions that are against the Pandavas’ interest.
Death of Ashwatthama
The turning point of Ashwatthama’s character in the Mahabharata occurs in the moment that the Pandavas (at Krishna’s urging) decide to fake his death in order to kill Drona.
On the morning of the fifteenth day, what happens is this: (1) Bhima kills an elephant named Ashwatthama; (2) Yudhishthir lies to Drona that Ashwatthama has been killed; (3) Once Drona gives up his arms, Dhrishtadyumna beheads him.
(For a more detailed description of how Drona dies, see: Mahabharata Episode 50: Drona Dies.)
Later in the day, Ashwatthama comes to know from Duryodhana the entire mechanics of how the Pandavas resorted to trickery to kill his father.
From that moment on, no matter how he felt toward the Pandavas in the past, Ashwatthama is driven by a mad urge to avenge Drona’s death.
His primary target is Dhrishtadyumna, because it is he who held the sword that beheaded Drona. But he is also filled with a deep, throbbing rage against the entire Panchala and Pandava army.
So while it is technically true that Ashwatthama’s death had been faked, it is also true that something of the essence of Ashwatthama breaks with his faked death.
What emerges from the incident is a more morally corrupt, spiritually dead Ashwatthama who is entirely focused on one thing only: revenge.
Revenge and the Narayanastra
Ashwatthama tries to take his revenge on the same day of the war, immediately after he hears from Duryodhana how Drona had been killed.
He seeks out Arjuna, and gets into a duel with him. Toward the end of the fight, Ashwatthama invokes the Narayanastra and shoots it into the sky.
Unfortunately for him, though, Krishna knows all about the Narayanastra – because he is Narayana after all. He tells the Pandavas and Arjuna exactly how to neutralize it.
With the Narayanastra thus successfully quelled, Ashwatthama is disconsolate at how badly his attempt to avenge his father’s death has failed. However, Vyasa arrives placate his feelings.
This pattern of behaviour – Ashwatthama using a powerful weapon of mass destruction for personal purposes – will repeat during the Sauptika Parva. But more on that later.
By the end of the fifteenth day of the war, Ashwatthama is left a broken shell of a man because he has finally realized the full extent of Krishna’s power. If Krishna could withstand the Narayanastra, what might he be unable to do?
Commander of the Kauravas
Ashwatthama becomes the commander of the Kaurava army toward the fag end of the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war.
Calling him a commander is a bit of a stretch, though: by this time, the Kaurava army is whittled down to only four warriors. Of these, Duryodhana has already been felled by Bhima, and he is on the brink of death.
It is in fact with weak resignation that Duryodhana makes Ashwatthama the next commander of the ‘army’. Ashwatthama promises Duryodhana that he will bring the Panchala army to its knees come what may.
After the quick anointment, three heroes – Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, and Kritavarma – set out in the middle of the night to raid the Pandava camp, and to kill whoever is in sight.
This is a flagrant violation of battle ethics. The most fundamental rule of fighting is that you must not raise your weapon on a sleeping enemy. But by this time, Ashwatthama’s heart has hardened to the point where ethics do not matter.
In his mind, he thinks: My father was killed when he was sleeping. There is no sin in avenging his death in the same way.
Ashwatthama is clearly the driving force behind this operation. Kripacharya and Kritavarma only reluctantly participate. It is Ashwatthama who enters into the Pandava camp. The other two guard the gates and kill those who try to escape.
One thing to note here is that the Pandavas, Krishna and Satyaki are not sleeping at camp that night. On Krishna’s suggestion, they are on the bank of the river Oghavati.
Why did Ashwatthama kill the Upapandavas?
Once he arrives at the entrance to the Pandava camp, Ashwatthama propitiates Shiva and receives from the god all his energy. For that short while, he becomes the incarnation of Maheshwara.
He massacres everyone he finds within the camp. His main victim is Dhrishtadyumna, whom he kills by repeatedly punching in the stomach. Dhrishtadyumna vomits blood and dies painfully.
Ashwatthama then kills Shikhandi and the Upapandavas too. These battles are quick and one-sided. None of the soldiers in the Panchala army put up any kind of fight against the rampage.
We must remember that Ashwatthama does not have anything personal against the Upapandavas. But at this point, his mind is so crazed with bloodlust that he just hacks at everyone in sight.
Some versions of the Mahabharata have speculated that Ashwatthama mistakes the Upapandavas – covered in bedclothes – for the Pandavas. But this is not true. He fights with each of them with weapons and kills them.
Why did Ashwatthama use the Brahmastra?
Ashwatthama uses the Brahmastra in his climactic fight against Arjuna at the hermitage of Vyasa.
After the news of the death of the Upapandavas (and the Panchalas) reaches Draupadi, she implores her husbands to take up arms once more, and not to rest until Ashwatthama has been defeated.
So the Pandavas and Krishna set out in pursuit, and find the son of Drona at Vyasa’s hermitage.
Here, Arjuna and Ashwatthama get into a duel. And Ashwatthama uses the Brahmastra in its offensive form.
Why does he do this? We can surmise that Ashwatthama – as analyzed by Bhishma – does not have the mental fortitude that is demanded of a great warrior in possession of powerful weapons.
Among other things, a powerful warrior has to be kind, and has to possess extreme reserves of self-control. For instance, Arjuna – who has had to endure a lot more suffering than Ashwatthama – never once uses any of his divine weapons during the war.
In fact, he resolves to use only his earthly weapons – and some of the less celestial weapons – in Kurukshetra. His control over self does not break even when Abhimanyu is killed.
In contrast, Ashwatthama is a warrior who has access to all the great weapons, but without the mental strength needed to prevent using them in anger.
On the fifteenth day, we see him use the Narayanastra in anger. And here, he uses the Brahmastra. Even when Vyasa asks him to recall it, he claims that he cannot and refuses to do so.
Why was Ashwatthama cursed?
Ashwatthama administers the final cleansing ritual of the Kurukshetra war: armed with Lord Shiva’s blessings, he attacks the Panchala camp on the night of the eighteenth day and kills all the sleeping soldiers.
This is a heinous act; of all the practices frowned upon for a Kshatriya, killing one’s enemy when the enemy is sleeping is the ugliest. There is no baser form of violence.
Still, Krishna considers himself powerless to punish Ashwatthama for this because it happens under the approving eyes of Shiva.
However, when Arjuna and Ashwatthama enter into a challenge to settle the deaths of the Upapandavas, the two heroes use the Brahmastra on each other. This brings Vyasa to the scene, and the sage asks both men to withdraw their respective weapons.
Arjuna does so, but Ashwatthama claims to be unable to control the missile. Instead, he points it to the ‘wombs of the Pandava women’, which includes the pregnant Uttara.
This act kills the growing foetus in Uttara’s womb. Krishna is enraged by this mindless act. With his magic he revives the baby, and also curses Ashwatthama with eternal life and suffering on Earth.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna curse Ashwatthama?)
What happened to Ashwatthama after the Mahabharata?
There is differing opinion on whether Ashwatthama is truly immortal, or whether Krishna was engaging in hyperbole when he cites Ashwatthama’s suffering as ‘eternal’.
If we take Krishna’s words literally, then we must conclude that Ashwatthama lives to this day. We should be able to recognize him from the still-raw wound on his forehead.
Or maybe modern medicine has given him means to disguise the wound enough to allow him to live undetected among common men.
On the other hand, if by the word ‘eternal’ Krishna merely meant ‘till the end of your life’, then we must postulate that Ashwatthama might have lived to a ripe old age under the auspices of Vyasa, and then died peacefully.
If this is true, then he may have found some semblance of inner peace that he had sought all his life. He may have finally discovered some of the mental clarity required of great warriors – ironically after he gives up his weapons.
Under Vyasa’s guidance, he would have lived a quiet life, reminiscing over the events of his earlier life. He would have died with a smile, and he might have even been welcomed into heaven in due course.
These are the two possibilities: (a) he is still on Earth, suffering from and fighting against his mental demons, or (b) he spent his sunset years under Vyasa’s guidance and learned to redeem himself despite his pain.
Visit to Dwaraka
An interesting aside to Ashwatthama’s story is a small anecdote that Krishna narrates to Yudhishthir when the latter is hesitating about following him, on the morning following the massacre.
Draupadi is begging the Pandavas to go in search of Ashwatthama. Bhima has already set out. But the rest of them are dithering.
Krishna then tells them this story:
When you were in the forest (Krishna says), Ashwatthama once visited Dwaraka and offered me a trade. Calling upon me one evening in private, he said, ‘O Krishna, the great weapon Brahmastra is now in my possession. I will give it to you if you, in return, give me your Sudarshana Chakra.’
I told him that he was free to take the discus without giving me anything in return. ‘All the energy of the three worlds resides in me, O Drauna,’ I said.
‘I shall give you any of my weapons – the bow, the discus, the dart or the mace. Tell me which one you want. You need not give me anything in exchange.’
‘Ashwatthama said again that he wanted the discus, and I told him to take it. He tried to first lift it with his left hand, then his right. Having failed to budge it, he heaved against it with his entire body.
‘You are unable to even move it one inch, O Hero,’ I said. ‘How do you propose to wield it?’ Then, seeing that he was consumed by sorrow, I told him that no one but I can carry my weapons.
‘Not Arjuna, not Pradyumna, not Balarama, not Satyaki – not even men who I consider my brothers have ever asked me to part with my weapons, Ashwatthama. You have summoned much courage in doing so. Might I ask what you intended to do once you got it?’
‘And Ashwatthama replied, ‘I wished to fight and destroy you, O Krishna.’
Krishna tells this story to drive home the point that Ashwatthama is wicked and guileless, and that he will not hesitate to use even the most powerful weapons in his possession against Bhima.
‘So we must go,’ he concludes. ‘We must go and protect Bhima against this wicked man.’
Did it happen?
Like with everything Krishna says and does, we must be sceptical about the truth behind this story. We must ask ourselves if it truly happened, and if it did, did it happen the way Krishna narrates it?
If it did happen, why did Krishna not tell anyone about this until this point?
It seems incredible to imagine that Ashwatthama – despite his many flaws – would travel all the way to Dwaraka only to ask Krishna for his discus, and then admit that he wanted it only to kill Krishna with it.
Are we to believe that a person can gain a private audience with Krishna in Dwaraka, and calmly admit to wanting to kill him – without facing any consequences?
Why did Krishna’s guards immediately not apprehend Ashwatthama on the spot? Why was he not thrown in prison?
It is of course possible that Krishna did not feel threatened against Ashwatthama despite the latter’s admission. Perhaps Krishna did not feel the imprison Ashwatthama and antagonize the Kuru leadership just for one vacant threat.
Or – perhaps none of this happened. Perhaps Krishna just made up a story on the spot to spur the Pandavas into action.
Was Ashwatthama good or bad?
Finally, we come to the question of whether Ashwatthama was good or bad.
From the point of view of the narrator of the Mahabharata story, Ashwatthama is clearly one of the antagonists. He is one of Duryodhana’s supporters. And he is the person who – at the end – performs the dramatic final act of the Kurukshetra war.
From a more neutral point of view, Ashwatthama is a man confused about his identity. By birth and order, he is a Brahmin. He is supposed to be disinterested in worldly affairs, and to give all his attention to scriptures and spirituality.
But because of the choices that his father (Drona) makes, Ashwatthama is raised in the lap of luxury, with all the worldly benefits that accrue to the son of a royal preceptor.
Not only does he grow up with princes for friends, but he also learns the art of weapons while neglecting his study of scripture.
None of this is a criticism of his character. But as he grows into an adult and becomes the ruler of Northern Panchala, he begins to make ethically grey choices for the sake of self-interest. And these choices accumulate to bring about his destruction at the very end of the war.
Ashwatthama’s role in the Sauptika Parva is worth reading in full. Also, Arjuna’s point of view in the fifteenth-day battle is recounted in the post: Did Arjuna have the Narayanastra?