How did Drona die?

How did Drona die - Featured Image - Picture of a war elephant's head, representing Drona.

Drona is the preceptor of the Kauravas and Pandavas in the Mahabharata. He is the son of Sage Bharadwaja, famously taking birth in an earthen vessel – a ‘Drona’.

Despite being a Brahmin by birth, Drona becomes tired of living a life of penury with his wife Kripa and son Ashwatthama. He comes to Hastinapur in the hope of making his fortune.

Here he is discovered by Bhishma, and given the role of royal teacher to the Kuru cousins.

In the Kurukshetra war, he fights by Duryodhana’s side and plays an important role – among other things – in the killing of Abhimanyu.

In this post, we will answer the question: How did Drona die?

Drona dies on the fifteenth day of the Kurukshetra war. Bhima first kills an elephant named Ashwatthama, and then Krishna cajoles Yudhishthir into uttering his famous lie: ‘Ashwatthama hathah.’ Drona immediately renounces his weapons, and Dhrishtadyumna seizes the opportunity to cut off the preceptor’s head.

Read on to discover more about how Drona died.

(For answers to all Drona-related questions, see Drona: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Carnage among the Panchalas

On the fifteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, after Arjuna has successfully avenged the death of his son Abhimanyu, Duryodhana admonishes Drona. ‘If I had known that you were powerless to protect Jayadratha, Acharya,’ he says, ‘I would have agreed to let the Saindhava flee to his kingdom.’

This stings Drona into action, and he falls upon the Panchalas with determination.

The soldiers, dropping like flies at the thick shower of arrows produced by the acharya, tell each other that he looks like the very incarnation of Yama.

‘Is it not clear that Drona will slay us all like a mighty fire might consume a forest? There is none among the Pandava forces that is willing to even look him in the eye.

‘Arjuna, who is alone a match for him, will not fight him because of his adherence to morality. What chance have we, then, of being rescued from this tempest?’

Krishna calls for intervention

Watching matters unfold thus, Krishna advises the Pandavas that the time may have arrived to bend the truth a little. ‘Drona cannot be slain as long as he is wielding his weapons,’ he says. ‘The only way to defeat him is by forcing him to relinquish them.

‘Indeed, if he comes to know that Ashwatthama, his son, has been killed, I am certain that he will no longer fight. Let it be, then, that one of you carries him this message.’

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 be set in motion.

Bhimasena kills an elephant

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.

Yudhishthir lies

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 Pandava – 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 fights 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 rides up to Drona to deliver a speech of his own.

Bhima’s Speech

‘If wretches among the Brahmin order had not stepped out of the boundaries set by their kind,’ he says, ‘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 and drink the blood of others.

‘How are you not 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 gives up his arms

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 fulfil his life’s purpose.

Significance of Drona’s Death

The death of Drona – especially the manner of it – enrages Ashwatthama. Until this point, Ashwatthama has fought well within himself against the Pandavas, often openly admiring the skill of Arjuna.

But now, when he hears of how his father had been lied to, and how he had been beheaded while seated in a yogic pose, Ashwatthama loses all compunctions about fighting the Panchalas and Somakas.

He takes a vow to kill Dhrishtadyumna. He realizes that the war he is fighting in right now is no longer a just or fair war. If a Brahmin can be killed after he had renounced his weapons, then there is no such thing as an act that is ‘too dishonourable’.

The Ashwatthama of the first fifteen days would have cringed at the thought of killing his enemy in his sleep, but now, after his heart had been hardened by news of Drona’s death, he resolves to do whatever it takes to avenge his father.

On the night of the eighteenth day, therefore, Ashwatthama commits the ultimate sin for a warrior: he attacks and slaughters his enemies while they’re sleeping in their tents, unarmed.

He does this with the permission and approval of Lord Shiva, who imbues his devotee with all the strength of his ganas.

Thus, the death of Drona leads directly to the final cleansing ritual that Ashwatthama performs in his father’s honour.

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