The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Narayanastra Mokshana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
After Drona’s Death
The Kauravas and the Pandavas have understandably contrasting responses to Drona’s death. Bhimasena jumps off his chariot and clutches the sword-wielding Dhrishtadyumna to his bosom.
‘I will hug you once again, O Parshata,’ he says, ‘at the moment of victory in this battle, after the head of that Sutaputra and that of that cruel Duryodhana have been thrown into the dust.’
A large number of Kaurava soldiers, consumed by grief, rummage among the numerous corpses on the battlefield, but fail to find the body of Drona.
As the word spreads across the field that the preceptor is no more, fear grips the hearts of all Kuru warriors, and one by one they flee with vacant looks on their faces, much like the Daitya army surrendered at the death of Hiranyaksha.
Karna, Shakuni, Shalya, Kripa, Kritavarma, Duryodhana, Duhsasana, Susharma, the Samshaptakas – they all turn their backs on the Pandavas and run back to their respective camps, more out of utter bewilderment than fear.
None of them have believed until this moment that Drona could be defeated.
Only Ashwatthama holds his position, continuing his rampage upon the Somakas and the Panchalas. When he sees the entire Kaurava army retreat as one, he addresses Duryodhana in perplexity.
‘Why are your soldiers and leaders running away, O King?’ he asks. ‘And why are you not rallying them if they are struck by fear? 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 Dhrishtadyumna 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.’
Hearing the account of his father’s death, Ashwatthama became filled with fierce anger. Like a fire fed with enormous amounts of dry wood, he blazed up in that battlefield.
He squeezed his hands together, ground his teeth, and breathed like a snake even as his eyes became drenched in deep red.
Ashwatthama says to Duryodhana, ‘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, disguised in the garb of virtue. 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 when 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. Fie on me, on my celestial weapons, on my prowess.
‘While I am alive, Drona had to experience the ignominy of being dragged through the dust by a mere Kshatriya. Let the Pandavas, with Janardana at their head, behold my energy today!’
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 Narayanastra. It is more powerful than the Brahmastra and the Pasupatastra. 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 Narayanastra.
When the Narayanastra is invoked, it causes violent winds to blow in a hundred different directions at once, with violent showers of rain and peals of thunder rending the cloudless sky.
As the earth trembles and the seas swell up in agitation, Yudhishthir looks out from his chariot at the re-assembling Kaurava forces.
Sensing that a great force is galvanizing the enemy, he turns to Arjuna and asks who it is that has taken up the responsibility of leading the Kauravas in the absence of Drona.
‘The moment Dhrishtadyumna killed Dronacharya,’ he says, ‘the Kaurava army became cheerless, O Dhananjaya, and in front of our very eyes they all fled the battlefield in panic. Even Shalya, the king of the Madras, ran away with his division.
‘But now I see that they are coming together once again. They are roaring as if in rapture. And the signs that I see around us are fearful ones indeed; they make my hair stand on end. What is causing all of this, Arjuna?
‘Who is this warrior that is uniting the Kaurava host?’
Arjuna replies, ‘He who is endued with modesty, he who is possessed of mighty arms, he whose tread resembles that of an elephant, he who owns the face of a tiger, he who has achieved many a fierce feat in his life, he whose voice reminds one of the divine steed Uchhaishravas, he whose name is Ashwatthama – he is the one who has brought the Kaurava army together, Brother.
‘He is roaring in grief, yes; but he is also roaring in despair that the most virtuous among us has chosen to tell a lie in order to win a kingdom.’
Arjuna’s voice gets steadily harsher. ‘You are acquainted with all the moral dictates of the Vedas, O King,’ he says. ‘And yet you have committed this sinful act.
‘The ill fame that is now yours will cling to you for eternity, Brother, just like Rama of Ayodhya is berated to this day for having slain Vali from behind a tree. The acharya would have thought:
Yudhishthir is truthful. He is my disciple. He would not lie to me. And that is why he laid down his weapons. But how was he to know that his disciple was bent on slaying him by any immoral way possible?
‘In our greed for short-lived sovereignity we have committed a sin that will forever tarnish our souls. That is your legacy, O King Yudhishthir.’
Bhimasena – the one Pandava who participated enthusiastically in Drona’s killing – is quick to reproach Arjuna. ‘Vijaya,’ he says, ‘you are a Kshatriya. Your duty is to overcome your enemy in whatever manner possible.
‘If you speak of fairness, where was fairness in the way the Kauravas treated us? Do I really have to repeat all the unspeakable things that they did to us, that they did to Draupadi? You are the son of Indra. Your powers are unbounded!
‘And yet you had to cover yourself in deerskin and spend thirteen years in the forest. Why? Because of this adherence to virtue! You had to live enclosed in women’s quarters in the Matsya kingdom. Why? Because of this adherence to virtue!
‘While Dronacharya was using celestial weapons upon our common soldiers in a bid to thin our army, why did you not rebuke him the same way? Your anger, it seems to me, Vibhatsu, is reserved for your own people, never for the enemy!
‘Well, if you choose not to fight, so be it. I shall take my mace and withstand the might of the Kaurava army – Ashwatthama or not – on my own! Those who will fight with me, will. Those who will not, will not.’
After Bhima had ended, Dhrishtadyumna addresses Arjuna and says:
‘O Jishnu, the sages have ordained these to be the duties of Brahmins: assisting at sacrifices, teaching, performing charitable acts, conducting rituals, receiving gifts, and committing to self-exploration.
‘To which of these six was Drona devoted? By what meaning of the term was he a Brahmin? Against the rules of his order, he has spent his entire life in the study or arms and weapons.
‘Indeed, that is what he taught the Kuru princes, not the Vedas. Using powerful illusions, he had no qualms about destroying our army. Indeed, it was on his behest that Abhimanyu was killed, O Dhananjaya.
‘He might have been a Brahmin by birth, but by his actions he has displayed every trait of a Kshatriya. When he waged a war against my father and defeated him for half his kingdom, was he not behaving as a king would?
‘If he was a Brahmin, he would never have stepped onto the battlefield of Kurukshetra, O Arjuna, and if he was a Kshatriya, then there is nothing wrong in what I have done.
‘All my life I have been raised to believe that I should kill him. And when the opportunity arises, what would you have me do, O Vibhatsu? Stop and ponder over whether it is righteous or not?
‘If there is nothing wrong in you killing Bhishma while shooting at the grandsire from behind Shikhandi, O Savyasachi, then there is nothing reproachful about my action either.’
Yuyudhana, the Vrishni prince, is not impressed with Dhrishtadyumna’s tone of voice.
But none of the Pandavas speak up against the Parshata; Arjuna is reduced to whispering ‘Fie! Fie!’ under his breath, while the rest of the Pandavas hang their heads in uncertain silence.
Satyaki laughs and shakes his head at this. ‘Is there no one here,’ he says, ‘that will speak up against this sinful man’s evil words? O son of Drupada, understand that the third Pandava is condemning you for your acts like a Brahmin pointing out the mistakes of a Chandala.
‘Having committed such a heinous act, after having earned the censure of all honest men who witnessed it, you still dare defend yourself with such bravado in this assembly?
‘You were unable to defeat the acharya even once in fair battle. Multiple times did you need me or Bhimasena to rescue you. And now that you have cut off the head of a half-dead man, you have suddenly become a hero?
‘You speak of Arjuna’s killing of Bhishma, but remember that the grandsire had himself chosen that time to pass. Also, the ambidextrous one was protecting Shikhandin and was enabling him to fulfil his destiny.
‘What have you done, on the other hand? You slew a meditating Brahmin in full view of a thousand brave men. Dare you compare your act to his?’
A Fight Erupts
Dhrishtadyumna’s eyes widen, and his mouth curls into a sneer. ‘I have heard your words, O Madhava, and I forgive you. Was it not just yesterday that you killed Bhurishrava when he had renounced his weapons?
‘Then you justified yourself quite beautifully, and boasted that you would never transgress the rules of righteousness. Now, since the man I killed in almost identical fashion is your preceptor’s preceptor, the laws change?
‘And where were you, O Saineya, when my sister Draupadi was subjected to terrible atrocities in the Kuru court? I do not recall you pontificating thus on virtue. So be silent. We are in a war. We must vanquish the enemy at all costs.’
Hearing these words from Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki loses his composure and jumps off his chariot with sword in hand. With the Parashata prince himself drawing a weapon to defend himself, Krishna makes a sign at Bhima, and the latter restrains Yuyudhana.
The son of Devaki then speaks to both the enraged warriors smilingly and in soft tones, persuading them to set aside their anger and focus instead on the bristling Kaurava army coming at them from across the plain.
Quelling the Narayanastra
When Ashwatthama invokes the Narayanastra, 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.’
Obeying his command, the vast majority of the Pandava soldiers drop their weapons, and begin to work on quelling thoughts of battle from their mind. Slowly, they notice that the number of weapons dotting the sky is steadily decreasing.
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 Varunastra and protects his brother.
Krishna Saves Bhima
Bhima stubbornly continues to shoot arrows at the Narayanastra, 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 Narayanastra 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. As the Pandava is pacified, the last of the weapons disappears, and the sky becomes clear once again.
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, even as the Kauravas are shocked beyond reason.
Ashwatthama now hurls the Agneyastra at Arjuna, but the latter counters it calmly with the Brahmastra.
Watching this, Ashwatthama is filled with grief. ‘O, fie upon me!’ he mutters, as the bow slips from his grasp. ‘Is everything I have ever learnt untrue?’
He descends from his chariot and leaves the battlefield in a daze, unable to comprehend how Krishna and Arjuna were able to escape the Agneyastra.
On the way out, he meets Vyasa, and asks the sage the same question.
‘Is this an illusion, O Sage,’ Ashwatthama says to Vyasa, ‘or have I been deceived by the weapon? What is the reason for which it has become fruitless? Has there been any mistake in my invocation of it?
‘Or is there some divine reason that has been kept secret from me? How is it that the two Krishnas are still alive after bearing the full brunt of my Agneyastra?
‘Alas, I have been told that no one among the Asuras, the Gandharvas, the Pisachas, the Rakshasas, the Uragas, the Yakshas, or human beings could resist the power of this missile.
‘And yet, after slaying merely one akshauhini of troops, it has been destroyed. Answer me, O holy one.’
Vyasa replies, ‘I will tell you everything you want to know, O Drauna. In the days of yore, Narayana, the oldest of the old ones, once propitiated Rudra, the holder of the Pinaka, for sixty six thousand years, subsisting on air alone.
‘When Shiva, with Parvati by his side, appeared in front of him, Vasudeva began to sing his praises, and in return received boons that he has deserved on account of his austerities.’
The Nilakantha then said to Narayana (Vyasa continues), ‘Through my grace, O Vasudeva, no one among the three worlds – not men, not Gandharvas, not Uragas, not Rakshasas, not any race known or unknown – shall ever be able to bear your prowess.
‘No one among the celestials will ever be able to vanquish you in battle. Through my grace you will never be caused pain by the weapon of the thunderbolt or with any object wet or dry, moving or unmoving. You shall be superior to even me, if we ever fight.’
Vyasa addresses Ashwatthama and tells him that the Narayana of old is none other than Krishna in this world. ‘And Arjuna is none other than Nara, the sage who was born out of the merits accumulated by Narayana’s penances.
‘Together, they take their births in every epoch in order to serve the purposes of the world. You, O Drauna, have the essence of Mahadeva in you, and therefore you are powerful too.
‘But because of the boons that Narayana received at the feet of Maheshwara all those years ago, none of the weapons that you have in your armoury will ever hurt them in any significant way.’
Hearing this story from Vyasa, Ashwatthama bows down to the image of Rudra in his head, and even as he accepts Krishna as the all-powerful god, auspicious marks form all over his body.
The son of Drona then returns to his chariot and calls off the Kuru army, bringing to an end the fifteenth day of the battle of Kurukshetra.
The Narayanastra Mokshana Parva ends on this note.