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 49: Karna Kills Ghatotkacha. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Bhima Kills an Elephant
On the fifteenth morning, Drona turns up in a fearsome avatar and begins using all his skill against ordinary soldiers in the Panchala army. Like Bhishma, he also intends to strip the Pandavas of a fighting force so that the war can be brought down to its knees.
Krishna is asking the Pandavas to lie openly about the death of a warrior, and Arjuna is quick to disapprove of it. The rest of the brothers, though, are more willing.
Yudhishthir agrees after a period of reluctant consideration, and gives permission for the plan to proceed.
Accordingly, Bhimasena first kills an elephant that is named Ashwatthama. Then he goes to where Dronacharya is fighting, and informs him that Ashwatthama has been killed.
Drona’s limbs begin to dissolve at hearing these words, and for a moment he dithers, but recalling the prowess of his son, he comes to regard the words of Bhima to be false, and continues to fight.
Like a pure fire that does not release smoke into the air, he spreads along the battlefield among the Panchala and Somaka forces, obliterating them with weapon after celestial weapon, drawn from his quiver at great speed.
He kills twenty thousand Panchala soldiers, five hundred Matsyans, ten thousand horses and six thousand elephants.
Beholding the acharya assuming a fiercer form than before, the Pandavas once again go to Krishna for advice. This time, the Dwaraka prince recommends that the messenger should be someone that Drona trusts.
‘Ashwatthama is Dead!’
A group of sages visit the battlefield now in order to dissuade Drona from fighting further. In this group are illustrious names such as Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Bharadwaja, Gautama, Vasishtha, Kashyapa, Atri, Bhrigu and Angirasa.
When they all tell him that he is wrong to continue fighting, Drona seeks out Yudhishthir and asks him whether it is really true that Ashwatthama has been killed. The eldest Pandava, that paragon of justice and truth, replies:
‘Yes, Acharya. Ashwatthama has been killed. Ashwatthama the elephant.’ But when he speaks the final two words of the sentence, he lowers his voice so that Drona might not hear it. (In Sanskrit, the words spoken by Yudhishthir are Ashwatthama hathah – kunjaraha.)
These words have a profound effect on the preceptor. His grip on the bow loosens. He finds that his world is swaying. He staggers around on his chariot, shaking his head, asking himself repeatedly how this had possibly happened.
(And yet it must be true, he thinks, because how could Yudhishthir speak an untruth?)
At the same time, the chariot of the eldest son of Kunti – which has always floated above the earth at a height equivalent to the breadth of four fingers (owing to his righteousness) – descends to the ground on account of this half-lie.
Drona continues to fight Dhrishtadyumna, though it is clear that his resolve is lost. Even in such a state, he manages to rout the Prishata prince one last time, breaking his bow, killing his horses, and depriving him of a chariot.
Bhimasena rescues the son of Drupada in his own vehicle, and decides that enough is enough.
He addresses Drona with the following words, expressly designed to force the preceptor into renouncing his weapons.
Bhima Insults Drona
Bhimasena begins his speech in a low, serious tone. ‘If wretches among the Brahmin order had not stepped out of the boundaries set by their kind, this great slaughter of the Kshatriyas would have never come to pass.
‘A Brahmin is said to embrace that greatest of virtues – of abstinence from violence to all creatures. But here you are, O Drona, having killed thousands of Mlechchas, Panchalas, Srinjayas, and Kshatriyas with the power of your arms, still standing, unashamed.
‘Blinded by desire for wealth, and to beget wives and off-spring, you have proven yourself to be the worst of all men of your order, sir. For the sake of an only son, you have lived a life of this sort; greedy, impetuous, forever eager to fight.
‘How do you not feel embarrassed? That man for whom you have taken up these arms – Ashwatthama, your son – is no more! King Yudhishthir has just told you of that fact. For whose sake do you fight now?
‘Your entire world has ended, and yet you insist on wielding your bow as if you were born with it!’
Drona stops fighting and listens. He turns Bhima’s words over in his head, time and again. Then he comes to a conclusion. Unstringing his bow, he calls out to his fellow heroes.
‘O Karna,’ he says, ‘O great bowman, O Kripa, O Duryodhana, I implore you to fight to the best of your abilities.’ He throws away his bow into the dust. ‘May victory be yours! As for me, I am giving up my weapons and my knowledge of arms.’
Chanting Ashwatthama’s name again and again loudly, he sits down on the terrace of his chariot, in the pose of an ascetic, his eyes closed.
Dhrishtadyumna sees his opportunity here, and dropping his own bow, picks up a sword and rushes toward the preceptor’s car. But by then Drona’s soul had already left his body, and has begun its upward journey to heaven.
(We are told that five people witness this event of Drona’s soul rising up to its final resting place. They are Sanjaya, Arjuna, Ashwatthama, Krishna and Yudhishthir. For everyone else, it appears as if the acharya is still alive, lost in meditation.)
Amid cries of ‘Fie!’ and ‘No!’ Dhrishtadyumna climbs into Drona’s chariot, and drags the body out into the dust. He then severs the head from the trunk and holds it aloft with a roar of triumph.
But even amidst his celebration, he is vaguely aware of some hollow note, a missing string deep in his heart, that tells him this was not quite the manner in which he thought he would fulfill his life’s purpose.
The Kaurava army is stricken with grief at the death of Drona. As the soldiers retreat in a great wave, one warrior stands his ground and continues to fight: Ashwatthama.
‘Why are your soldiers and leaders running away, O King?’ he asks Duryodhana. ‘And why are you not rallying them? Why are you fleeing yourself? Has some incident happened that has filled you with despair?’
Duryodhana does not have the heart to describe to Ashwatthama the manner of his father’s death. He instead asks Kripa to break the news.
In great detail, the Kuru elder describes how the plan to kill Drona was hatched, how Yudhishthir the truth-speaking one was entrusted with carrying the false message, how Bhima goaded the acharya into submission…
And how Dhrishtadyumna, not heeding the multitude of voices forbidding him from doing so, cut off the head of the preceptor with a sword and held it aloft as a prize.
‘Arjuna also,’ says Kripa, finishing, ‘jumped down from his car and ran toward his commander, shouting at the top of his voice not to kill Drona but to take him prisoner, but the prince of Panchala was beyond all reason by then. And Dhrishtadyumna thus killed your father, O Ashwatthama.’
Ashwatthama’s immediate reaction to Kripa’s words is to grind his teeth and to consider the fallow land of Kurukshetra with copper-red eyes. Then he addresses Duryodhana and says:
‘I have now learnt how my father has been slain by those low wretches after he has given up his weapons. I have now heard how an unrighteous and cruel act has been committed by the Dharmaraja.
‘Indeed, when we come into a battle, we do so having prepared to die. If a fighter breathes his last while engaged in war the fair way, he is not to be mourned. My father, I am certain therefore, has gone to the region of great heroes.
‘No, I do not mourn his death. I merely mourn the manner of it. To imagine his locks being handled by the uncouth Dhrishtadyumna in the midst of all those thousands of warriors – that boils my blood!
‘The crooked Parshata prince has committed an act that is at once sinful and dangerous. He has incurred the blame of killing a Brahmin while the latter is engaged in ascetic penance.
‘I am certain that a place in hell was allocated to him at that very moment his sword sliced through my father’s neck.
‘But I am not content with that! Let me take an oath right in your presence, O Duryodhana, that I shall exterminate the entire Panchala dynasty.’
(Ashwatthama succeeds in fulfilling his oath in a roundabout manner. For a more detailed description of how, read our post recounting the Sauptika Parva.)
The Narayana Astra
Ashwatthama continues: ‘Not Bhimasena, not Nakula or Sahadeva, not Arjuna – and not even the Gandharvas or the Pishachas or the Rakshasas will be able to withstand me in battle today.
‘I have in my possession a great weapon given me by my father called the Narayana Astra. It is more powerful than the Brahmastra and the Pashupatastra. There is no one in the three worlds capable of surviving its might, O King.
‘That wretch among the Panchalas, Dhrishtadyumna, will never be able to escape from me today with his life intact.’
Hearing these words, the Kuru army rallies, and all the leaders blow upon their conches to summon their divisions back onto the field. Filled with delightful roars and the notes of drums, the air bristles with energy.
As the Pandavas regroup on the other end of the battlefield, ready to receive this renewed Kaurava onslaught, Ashwatthama touches some holy water and invokes the Narayana Astra.
When Ashwatthama invokes the Narayana Astra, the sky gets filled with thousands of bright, sharp weapons, and their edges gleam in the sunlight.
The Pandavas, the Srinjayas and the Panchalas are agitated at the configuration of celestial weapons that shroud the sky, and they seek the advice of Yudhishthir on what to do.
The eldest Pandava is clueless, having never seen anything of this sort before. He advises his soldiers, though, to lower their weapons. ‘Wait, O heroes!’ he says. ‘We shall not fight until we understand if there is a way by which we can defeat this weapon.
‘It appears to me as if it is best to flee the battlefield and concede victory to Duryodhana. Perhaps it is better that the Pandavas begin building their own funeral pyres, because such a shameful defeat deserves such a fate.
‘Perhaps Vasudeva can tell us how to fight this powerful weapon, which seems to me to be stronger than even the Pashupatastra.’
Krishna stands up in his seat after Yudhishthir has had his say. In a loud voice he addresses the Pandava army. ‘Drop your weapons, everyone!’ he says. ‘The Narayanastra can only be defeated by peace.
‘Remove from your heart all desire to fight, and you will see that the weapons in the welkin disappear one by one if you do that. But even if you entertain the thought of violence in your mind, the weapon will feed off it and grow in power.’
But Bhimasena does not like this way of destroying the Narayanastra. He picks up his mace and roars at the sky.
‘I am Bhimasena,’ he says, ‘the son of Vayu, the brother of Hanuman. I am the strongest man in the world. I shall fight this weapon and annihilate it with the strength of my arms.’
Saying so, he begins shooting arrows at the sky, only to see that the weapon grows stronger with each volley of shafts that it consumes. And when it retaliates, a great shower of lances and spears fall upon Bhima, covering him completely.
At Krishna’s bidding, Arjuna intervenes in time with the Varuna Astra and protects his brother.
Bhima stubbornly continues to shoot arrows at the Narayana Astra, and again he receives a severe backlash. This time, some of the weapons force through the protective shield and injure him.
Krishna then steers the chariot up close to where Bhima is standing, and in a calm voice, asks the latter to lay down his weapon. ‘Look at all the warriors of your army, O Vrikodara,’ he says. ‘They have all dropped their weapons.
‘The only fuel feeding the fire that is the Narayana Astra is your foolishness. Descend from your car, O hero, and seek that kernel of peace that resides in your heart. That is the only way, I assure you, that this great weapon can be vanquished.’
Krishna himself ascends Bhima’s chariot, and taking him by the arm, guides him down to the ground.
For a few anxious moments both armies stand watching with their heads craned, as a steady breeze blows across the Kurukshetra. Then, when it becomes clear that Ashwatthama’s terrible weapon has been successfully defeated, the Pandava army breaks out in cheers of rapturous joy
Watching his most powerful weapon being neutralized in this fashion, Ashwatthama is consumed by despair. He wonders if he has somehow misused the Narayana Astra.
But Vyasa appears to him at that moment and assures him that all has happened according to plan. ‘The Narayana Astra belongs to Narayana, O Hero,’ he says, ‘so of course you must not expect it to work on Narayana himself.’
Vyasa further counsels Ashwatthama through his grief, and with the son of Drona calming down for the moment, the fifteenth day of battle ends.
From here on, it is Karna’s turn to lead the Kaurava army.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered