Mahabharata Episode 54: Ashwatthama Rages

Ashwatthama Rages - Featured Image - Picture of an owl

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 53: Bhima Defeats Duryodhana. 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:

Arjuna’s Chariot Burns

The Pandavas arrive at the tent of Duryodhana just as Yuyutsu is herding out the women and aged councillors present there toward Hastinapur.

As all the princes and kings dismount from their chariots, Krishna addresses Arjuna and says, ‘Take down your Gandiva and your two inexhaustible quivers, Partha. I will descend after you do. Do obey my words, for they are for your own good.’

Arjuna does as he is told. After he has taken a few steps away from the chariot, Krishna descends with the reins in hand. No sooner has he gained some distance than the ape banner flying atop the chariot dissolves into dust.

The top of the vehicle, which has been burnt before by Drona and Karna with their celestial weapons, catches fire and turns into cinder. The entire chariot, along with the horses, yoke and shaft, is reduced to ashes.

Everyone looks on aghast at this wonder, and Arjuna asks Krishna what the meaning behind this is.

‘That car on which you have been fighting, Arjuna,’ replies the dark one, ‘has been consumed many times over already by various weapons. It is only because I have been sitting on it that it has not broken into pieces.

‘It has even consumed the power of the Brahmastra, if you remember. Now the time has come for it to attain its object, that of being destroyed in this great sacrifice.’

A New Commander

Meanwhile, messengers who had witnessed the fight between Bhimasena and Duryodhana carry the news to the surviving members of the Kaurava army: Kripacharya, Kritavarma and Ashwatthama.

The three of them hurry over to where Duryodhana lies prostrate on the ground, like a fallen Sala tree, surrounded by carnivorous birds and beasts.

This angers Ashwatthama beyond reason, and he rises to his feet and claps his hands. ‘My father was first killed by those wretches in the most despicable manner. Now you have been killed too, using the same means of trickery.

‘Listen to my words, O Duryodhana. I shall do whatever is in my power to send the Panchalas and the Pandavas to the abode of Yama. It behooves you, therefore, to grant me permission to do so.’

Duryodhana looks at the son of Drona for a few seconds, and then asks for a pot of water to be brought. ‘Let Ashwatthama be instated, O Acharya,’ he tells Kripa, ‘at my command as the next leader of my forces.’

To Ashwatthama he says, ‘You are now the supreme commander of my army, O Drauna, and you continue in the legacy left behind by Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Shalya. Do what you will in order to exact revenge, and to secure victory for the Kuru dynasty in this war against the Pandavas.’

Lesson of the Owl

The three survivors of the Kaurava army first make their way toward the Kuru encampment, in order to free some horses for their use.

There, hearing the sounds of the Pandavas celebrating, and fearing that they may be found, they flee toward the east into a forest and settle down for the night.

After the thirst of their horses had been assuaged at a nearby lake, and after Kripa and Kritavarma have gone to sleep, Ashwatthama remains awake, inflamed by thoughts of avenging his father’s death.

It so happens that the son of Drona, at that moment, spots a large banyan littered with sleeping crows on every branch. An owl of fearsome aspect carefully approaches one of the outer branches, and with great speed and precision, slays a number of the sleeping birds.

He tears open the wings of some; he cuts off the heads of others with his claws; he breaks the legs of some more. As these slain crows drop to the ground and the earth is strewn with black feathers, the owl spreads its wings and hoots in delight.

Ashwatthama considers this scene meaningful, and begins to reflect upon it, desiring to frame his own conduct around that of the owl.

This owl teaches me a lesson, he thinks. If I am to fight against the Pandavas in fair battle, I will never be able to vanquish them. By an act of guile, however, I may still attain success.

People always applaud those courses of action that are certain over those that are not. The Pandavas have, during this war, perpetuated some very ugly acts in order to realize their means. It is not wrong, therefore, to oppose sin with sin.

And has it not been said that an enemy force, even when fatigued, wounded with weapons, engaged in the act of eating, or resting within their camp, should be attacked?

It has been advised that enemies should be dealt with in the same way no matter whether they are asleep or awake, broken or whole.

Reflecting thus, Ashwatthama hatches a plot designed to exterminate the Panchalas.

Ashwatthama is Humbled

Ashwatthama convinces Kripa and Kritavarma that they should raid the Panchala camp at night and kill all the soldiers and warriors resting inside it.

When they arrive at the gate, though, they see that a fearsome figure is guarding it.

He is possessed of the splendour of the sun and the moon. Round his loins is a patch of tiger-skin dripping with blood, and for his upper garment he wears the coat of a dead deer. Around his chest, in the place of a sacred thread, he has a snake.

His arms are long and massive, and they hold many varieties of weapons. His mouth blazes with flames of fire, and his teeth are sharp and curved. It appears as though his very sight is enough to reduce a thousand mountains to dust.

Seeing this ghoulish man guarding the entrance, Ashwatthama, without preamble, begins showering a number of celestial weapons on him. But all the shafts that leave the bow of the son of Drona are devoured by the figure.

Like the vadava fire devouring the waters of the ocean, the being obliterates the intended effects of all of Ashwatthama’s weapons.

Ashwatthama now realizes that in order to put his plans into action, he must first pass this immense warrior who stands in his path. Let me worship Mahadeva, the god of destruction, he thinks. He will help me surmount this challenge against a being I do not recognize.

Pondering thus, he sits down cross-legged on the ground, and commits himself to pray to the trident-wielder.

The Favour of Shiva

‘I seek the protection,’ says Ashwatthama, ‘of him who is called Ugra, Sthanu, Shiva, Rudra, Sharva, Ishana, Ishvara, Girisha, he who is the boon-giving god, who is the creator and destroyer of the universe, and whose throat is blue.

‘I seek the protection of him who is without birth, who is called Sakra, who destroyed the sacrifice of Daksha, who is called Hara, whose form is infinite as the universe, who has three eyes, who is possessed of multifarious forms,  and who is the lord of Uma.

‘I seek the protection of him who resides in crematoriums, who swells with energy, who is the lord of diverse tribes of ghostly beings, who wears matted locks on his head, who is a Brahmachari.’

As Ashwatthama sings the praises of Shiva in this manner, a golden altar appears before him, and upon it, filling all the points of the compass, burns a hungry fire.

Many mighty beings with blazing mouths and eyes, many feet and arms also arrive as if out of nowhere. Some of them have faces of snakes, others of elephants, yet others of jackals and bulls.

Some have matted locks on their heads; others have five tufts of hair; and some are bald. Some have lean stomachs, some have four teeth, some have four tongues, while some have ears straight as arrows.

Ashwatthama the Enforcer

‘Sprung from the line of Angirasa,’ he says, ‘I, the son of Drona, am about to pour my soul as libation in this fire, O Lord. Accept my body in its purest form as offering in this great sacrifice.

‘Since I am unable to vanquish my enemies, since you have seen it fit to render me incompetent thus, I wish to offer myself up to you and end my life on earth.’

As the son of Drona ascends the steps of the altar and approaches the fire, and as the chants surrounding him attain fever pitch, Shiva appears in his divine form and stops his devotee.

‘I have protected the Panchalas over the last eighteen days,’ he says, ‘out of my love and respect for Krishna. But their time has come, O Ashwatthama. And it is you who will bring about their end.’

Saying so, he causes a divine sword to appear out of thin air, and offers it to the son of Drona.

And as Ashwatthama accepts the gift, as his fingers close around the hilt of the weapon, Mahadeva, along with his thousands of followers enter the body of the Kaurava leader, filling him with all the power of the three worlds.

Dhrishtadyumna Dies

Seeing that he has the power of Shiva within him, Ashwatthama enters the gate and makes his way first toward Dhrishtadyumna’s tent.

Walking past sleeping guards and entering it, he sees the Panchala prince lying on his back with his arms spread out, and his body unarmoured, clad in white. The son of Drona tiptoes over to the bed and shakes Dhrishtadyumna awake by gripping the prince’s hair.

The Panchala prince opens his eyes, and when he sees that it is Ashwatthama with a sword standing atop him, he knows that his time has come. ‘Kill me with the sword in one swoop, O Drauna,’ he says. ‘Do not tarry.’

Ashwatthama laughs. ‘A man such as you who committed the sin of killing one’s preceptor can never be given such an easy death, you wretch.’

He drags Dhrishtadyumna to his feet and begins pounding over his body with his fists and heels, using the weapon only to threaten. This brings about howls and moans of pain from the Pandava leader, but Ashwatthama relentlessly beats his enemy until the latter vomits blood and dies.

These sounds awaken some of the nearby guards, but by the time they come to investigate, Ashwatthama is nowhere to be seen. All they discover is the battered body of their leader.

‘Whether the assailant is a Rakshasa or a human being, we do not know,’ they tell each other. ‘But he has come and gone as if he were a wraith, a follower of Shiva.’

But as they are about to reach for their weapons in anticipation of a fight, Ashwatthama uses the Rudrastra and reduces them all to ashes.

The Upapandavas Die

Ashwatthama moves from one tent to another in silence, slicing throats and ending the lives of many foremost Panchala warriors and their followers. All his victims tremble and shriek softly, some of them in their sleep, others in fatal moments of half-waking.

Then he comes upon the tent of the Upapandavas, the five sons of Draupadi. Alarmed by the noise, and having heard that Dhrishtadyumna has been slain, the Upapandavas and the Prabhadrakas try to check the son of Drona with a cloud of arrows.

But Ashwatthama imbued with all the power of Shiva and his army is no pushover. He alights from his chariot, and picking up a shield with a thousand moons on it, wards off all the missiles flying in his direction, and attacks each of his assailants with immense poise.

He first pierces Prativindhya in the abdomen, then cuts off the sword-wielding arm of Sutasoma before flaying open his abdomen with two merciless strokes.

Satanika, the son of Nakula, comes at Ashwatthama with a chariot-wheel and strikes him in the chest, but the son of Drona responds by chopping off his enemy’s head.

Srutakarma tries to attack Ashwatthama with a spiked club, and even manages to land a blow on the latter’s head, but receives a number of rasping cuts on his face which bleed him to death.

The last to meet his fate is Srutakirti, who loses his head to Ashwatthama’s sword.

Shikhandi Dies

Next on Ashwatthama’s list is Shikhandi, the killer of Bhishma. The Panchala prince attacks the son of Drona from the side with all the Prabhadrakas behind him, but it does not take long for Ashwatthama to make short work of all the warriors surrounding Shikhandi.

The son of Drupada manages to plant one arrow between the brows of his enemy, but for his efforts he receives the full wrath of the devotee of Shiva, and before he knows it, his life is snuffed out, and his head is separated from his trunk.

From here, Ashwatthama sets about creating carnage among the sons, grandsons and followers of Drupada, singling them out one after the other and cutting them down.

The warriors of the Pandava camp are by now awake, and a number of them even have weapons in their grasp, but the appearance of their killer is so ghoulish and other-worldly that they remain rooted in their spots, unsure of what it is that is hunting them down.

They see Death-Night in her embodied form, a black image with bloody mouth and bloody eyes, wearing crimson garlands and smeared with crimson unguents.

She is attired in a single piece of red cloth, with a noose in hand, resembling an old crone, chanting a dismal note under her breath, leading all the dead men and animals away by means of a stout rope.

She follows Ashwatthama as a devout slave, adding to her string of dead people as the son of Drona continues his purposeful walk around the camp.

Ashwatthama dons the garb of the Destroyer, cutting off the legs of some men, the hips of others, piercing some in their flanks, silently carrying out the commands of Time.

Many of the fallen men exclaim in puzzlement how the victors of a war could be killed thus. ‘Who is this man that is slaying us?’ they ask one another in painful whispers. ‘What is this noise? Who is that old woman? What curse has been laid upon us?’

The Rakshasas Rejoice

Rakshasas begin to converge upon the Pandava camp now, drawn by the smell of impure blood. Those who are able to sense what is happening send loud cheers into the air.

Hearing the wails of human woe, the tired trumpets of elephants drawing their last breaths, and the last sighs of dying horses, the Rakshasas are consumed by unbridled joy.

The panicked soldiers of the Pandava encampment now turn on one another in their efforts to escape this danger. Shiva scrambles the minds of these men just enough to make them attack their own friends.

When some of the clear-headed ones reach the exit gate, they run into Kripa and Kritavarma, who hack them down.

With the night darkening, numerous Yakshas and Rakshasas begin to arrive with their crooked forms and grotesque bodies, baying for blood.

When they see the amount of flesh and blood covering the earth in the camp, with Ashwatthama alone standing in the midst of it all like the Destroyer himself, they emit loud cheers and fall to their knees.

Quaffing the flowing blood hungrily, they exclaim to one another, ‘This is an excellent feast! Bless the son of Drona for feeding us thus!’

Other carnivorous beasts also come there, lured by the smell of fresh blood, and they pick off the few surviving soldiers who are hurrying away into the dead of the night. Thus the slaughter is completed by the creatures of the dark.

Duryodhana Dies

At the crack of dawn, with their mission complete, the three Kaurava heroes leave from the Panchala camp and set out to where Duryodhana is.

They find the king lying motionless with his eyes closed, beasts of prey circling in wait. They are unable to discern whether the eldest Dhartarashtra still has life in him.

Ashwatthama is overcome by sadness at this sight. ‘Alas,’ he says. ‘The lord of eleven akshauhinis of troops now lies in the midst of this forest, bereft of all ornaments and weapons, in the company of vultures and hawks.

‘But if you are alive, O Duryodhana, listen to my words, for they bring you good news. On the side of the Pandavas, only seven men survive – the sons of Kunti, the younger brother of Balarama, and Satyaki of the Vrishnis.

‘Everyone else – the Panchalas, the Somakas, the Srinjayas, along with their kings and ministers and princes – are dead. Yes, O King. I have slain Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, the Upapandavas – everyone!’

These words are so significant that they bring Duryodhana back from the brink. His eyes flutter open. His lips move, and his voice is faint.

‘Where Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Shalya failed, you have succeeded, O Ashwatthama! You have made my heart light as air in this moment of passing. Blessed be you! And blessed be you, O Kripacharya, O Kritavarma.

‘Let the entire prosperity of Earth be yours in this life. We shall meet one another again in heaven, I promise.’

With these words, Duryodhana falls silent, and after a few minutes, with the three men in solemn attendance, his breathing stops.

News Reaches Yudhishthir

After that night had passed away, the charioteer of Dhrishtadyumna, who manages to escape the night-time assault, seeks out the Pandavas on the bank of Oghavati and tells them all about the marauding Ashwatthama, and the destruction he had left in his wake.

Yudhishthir is stunned by this turn of events. He loses balance and falls to the ground, even as Satyaki, Bhima and Arjuna rush forward to hold him.

‘Alas,’ says the eldest Pandava, ‘after having vanquished the foe, we now find ourselves vanquished. Even by people gifted by the sharpest spiritual vision, the course of events is impossible to be determined.

‘Our enemy, who we thought we had defeated, have now scored another victory over us. Having slain brothers, friends, fathers and sons of the enemy, we now stand here, bereft of companions ourselves!

‘Alas, what else but fate could kill all those soldiers who managed to escape the arrows of Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Shalya? After having fought through numerous mazes and after having overcome so many stratagems, they find themselves slain in their sleep.

‘That is the lowest form of death for a warrior; what else but destiny can be held responsible for such a turn of events?

‘I grieve the most, today, for Krishnaa. Hearing of the slaughter of her brothers, kinsmen and sons, she will be torn by grief. What will be her plight when she hears of the extermination of the entire Panchala dynasty? Indeed, she will be scorched by fire.’

Yudhishthir now sends Nakula to the quarters of Draupadi – where she is staying with the other Panchala women – to break the news to her. Draupadi weeps at the death of her brothers and her sons.

Then she entreats Bhima to chase down Ashwatthama and kill him. This final act of revenge makes up our next episode.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!