The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).
Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.
The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.
In this post, we will answer the question: What was the final event of the Mahabharata War?
The Mahabharata war ends with a three-part climax: (1) Bhima defeats Duryodhana, after which Krishna declares the war ended; (2) Ashwatthama kills the Upapandavas and Panchalas at night, against the rules of war; (3) The Pandavas defeat Ashwatthama, and Krishna curses him with immortality.
(For a more complete analysis of the Mahabharata War, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)
Bhima Defeats Duryodhana
On the evening of the eighteenth day of the war, the Pandavas ferret out a hiding Duryodhana from the bottom of a lake outside Kurukshetra. A mace-fight is set up between him and Bhima.
Despite being equally matched, Duryodhana wears down Bhima bit by bit during this duel. A worried Arjuna then asks Krishna about Bhima’s chances.
To which Krishna replies unequivocally: ‘Unless Bhima uses unfair means, he cannot win against Duryodhana.’
Arjuna immediately signals to Bhima – by slapping his thigh – that the time has come. Bhima catches the sign, and at the next available opportunity, brings his weapon down with all its weight on Duryodhana’s thighs.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 53: Bhima Defeats Duryodhana.)
Duryodhana falls to the ground with a cry of pain and protest.
He accuses Krishna and the Pandavas of winning the war with unjust methods. ‘You have killed Bhishma, Drona, Karna and now me with your shady tactics!’ he says.
But Krishna is in no mood to listen to Duryodhana’s remonstrations. He reminds Duryodhana of all the times in the past when he had flouted all rules of Dharma.
‘When faced against an enemy who does not care for virtue,’ Krishna declares, ‘there is no sin in resorting to unethical means.’
Krishna then blows on his conch. He announces that the war has come to an end, and that the sons of Pandu have won it.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna become Arjuna’s charioteer?)
Ashwatthama Becomes Commander
The Pandavas thus convince themselves that the war has come to an end and that they have won. But they do not kill Duryodhana. They leave him on the edge of Kurukshetra with his thighs crushed.
After the Pandavas and Krishna leave the place, Duryodhana gets visited by Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma.
These three warriors have survived the war. And unbeknownst to the Pandavas, Ashwatthama wishes to keep the war going.
He tells Duryodhana, ‘Make me commander of you army, O King, and I shall avenge the deaths of all your loved ones. I will kill the Panchalas and bring succour to the soul of my father as well!’
Duryodhana is reluctant, because after all, there is no army left for the Kurus. But perhaps figuring that he has nothing to lose, he anoints Ashwatthama the next leader of his ‘army’.
The three surviving heroes are heavily outnumbered at this point. There is no way that they can make a dent in the Panchala force with fair fight.
Ashwatthama does not intend to fight fairly, however. Inspired by the sight of an owl mercilessly plucking the lives out of some fledgling birds in a nest, he hatches a plan to attack the Panchala camp at night.
Now, of all the unvirtuous acts a warrior can commit, attacking the enemy when he is sleeping is considered the basest.
But this does not deter Ashwatthama. He reasons that the war has long shed its Dharmic veneer. In an argument with Kripa, he says, ‘The moment they killed my father when he was meditating, they have stepped into the realms of Yama!’
Ashwatthama then takes the blessings of Shiva for this unholy act. Shiva imbues him with all the power of his ganas.
Armed with this strength, Ashwatthama strides into the Panchala camp and unleashes a torrent of death on everyone in his path. Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna and the Upapandavas are among those that die at his hand.
As far as Ashwatthama is concerned, the war ends with this act.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 54: Ashwatthama Rages.)
Draupadi Seeks Revenge
The morning after, when it comes to light that the Panchala camp has been razed to the ground, Draupadi mourns the death of her brothers and sons.
As her grief gives way to anger, she addresses Yudhishthir and says, ‘The war cannot be finished until Ashwatthama is punished!’
While Yudhishthir wary of taking up arms again, Bhimasena answers Draupadi’s call and sets out in his chariot on Ashwatthama’s trail. The rest of the Pandavas and Krishna follow suit.
They find the son of Drona hiding out at Vyasa’s hermitage. Here, Arjuna challenges him to a duel, and Ashwatthama uses the Brahmastra on his opponent.
Arjuna, of course, has a Brahmastra of his own. So he casts it in its defensive form to counter Ashwatthama’s missile.
Wombs of the Pandava Women
Vyasa intervenes in the battle and commands both warriors to withdraw their respective weapons. ‘These weapons have the strength to destroy the three worlds,’ he says. ‘Please call them back into your quivers.’
Arjuna obeys Vyasa’s instruction immediately. But Ashwatthama claims that he is unable to control his weapon.
Instead, he redirects the Brahmastra from Arjuna to strike at the wombs of all the Pandava wives. This immediately renders all of them infertile.
(The implication here is that with this act, the Kuru dynasty is essentially left heirless. It is not clear why the Pandavas cannot marry more wives and have children with them.
Presumably, Ashwatthama’s magic works on future wives as well. Or – despite the phrasing used – the weapon makes both the men and women sterile.)
This act angers Krishna so much that he curses Ashwatthama. He also vows to protect the foetus growing inside Uttara’s womb right at that moment.
‘Even though he will be born dead,’ Krishna says, ‘I will breathe life into him. He will become a great king in his time.’
(Suggested: Why did Krishna curse Ashwatthama?)
Krishna Curses Ashwatthama
The Pandavas do not kill Ashwatthama even though they have the chance. Instead, Krishna curses him that he will be destined to roam the world for many years with an injury that will never heal.
‘You will be forced to live in this world of men friendless and in pain for all eternity,’ says Krishna.
The Pandavas then take Ashwatthama gemstone – that which is buried inside his forehead – and return to Draupadi. It leaves a wound in Ashwatthama’ forehead that Krishna assures him will forever leak pus.
Bhima presents the gemstone to Draupadi as proof that Ashwatthama had been punished.
When they tell her that they did not kill him, Draupadi accepts this. ‘It is only right that you refrained from slaying the son of your preceptor,’ she says.
She accepts the souvenir from Bhima, and agrees for the war to be called ‘ended’.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 55: Ashwatthama is Cursed.)
The Mahabharata war thus ends with a three-part climax.
- First, Bhima defeats Duryodhana and brings an official end to the war. Krishna declares the Pandavas winners.
- Then, Ashwatthama takes up the challenge to take the offensive to the Panchala camp. He launches a night-time attack and massacres his enemies when they’re sleeping. He thinks this brings the war to an end.
- But Draupadi’s insistence of revenge ensures that a final showdown happens between Arjuna and Ashwatthama.
The war finally ends with Krishna cursing Ashwatthama, and Ashwatthama’s forehead gemstone being presented to Draupadi as a souvenir.
Only after the deaths of the Upapandavas and her brothers are avenged does Draupadi agree that the war has properly ended.
If you liked this post, you may find this interesting also: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.