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 Sauptika Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
A New Commander
Meanwhile, messenger 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.
Alighting from their cars, they rush toward the Kuru king and sit around him in silence. At last, the son of Drona says, ‘Truly, there is nothing stable in the world of men if you, the eldest son of Dhritarashtra, have attained this pitiable state.
‘You were a king who commanded the whole earth, Your Highness. And now you lie alone in this wilderness, as vultures circle you. Behold the reverses that Time brings upon man.
‘Without doubt, the prosperity of all mortals is very unstable, since you who were equal unto Sakra have now been reduced to such a sorry plight.’
Duryodhana replies, ‘This liability to death is said to have been ordained by the Creator. Death comes to all beings in course of time. It has come to me now, before your eyes. I have been slain by deception.
‘I have never turned my back on battle, and I always fought that which I felt is wrong or unjust. On no account should anyone grieve for me, for I have attained the kind of death that a Kshatriya is born for.’
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 behoves 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.
‘At the behest of a king, even a Brahmana may fight, especially one who has adopted Kshatriya practices.’
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.’
The 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.
Their quarters are not too far away from the Kuru camp, but suitably distant as to offer cover from the unsuspecting Pandavas.
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.
As the sun sets and darkness envelops the sky, those creatures that walk the night begin to howl and whine.
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 smitten?
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 Pandavas and the Panchalas.
A Plan is Hatched
Ashwatthama tells Kripa his plan:
‘I was born in a family of Brahmins, Acharya. So were you. But by ill-luck, I am wedded to Kshatriya duties by the actions and desires of my father. It is too late for me to become a pious Brahmana overnight.
‘I hold excellent weapons in my hand. I hold the knowledge of all celestial missiles in my mind. If I do not avenge the death of my father today, in the true way of a Kshatriya, then how will I ever speak up in the company of men again?
‘If I know that I can avenge the ignominy heaped upon my king and still refuse to act on that knowledge, what will the world say of me in the future?
‘The Panchalas are elated today. They think they have won the war. They will sleep without a care in the world, having cast off their armour and weapons.
‘Like Maghavat slaying the Danavas, I shall descend upon them when they least expect it, and I shall turn their camp into a graveyard! Only after exacting revenge shall my mind know rest, O son of Gotama.’
Saying these words, he yokes his horses to his vehicle and ascends it. ‘With you or without you, Acharya,’ he declares, ‘I am going to attack the Pandava camp tonight, without waiting for the sun to rise. Let this sinful battle end with yet another act of sin!’
And as he rides away, Kripa and Kritavarma reluctantly follow the son of Drona to the Pandava camp.
A Strange Guard
The three chariots grind to an abrupt halt at the gate of the Pandava camp. Standing in front of it is a gigantic, frightful figure 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.
With all his weapons thus destroyed, the last of the Kaurava commanders casts his eyes around, and sees the firmament filled with images of Krishna.
The words spoken by Kripa a short while back echo in his mind, and he wonders for a moment whether he is doing the right thing.
It is only because I am unable to vanquish my foes with weapons and skill that I seek to kill them in their sleep, he tells himself, but then shakes his head violently to break free of these inner voices.
In any case, Ashwatthama knows 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.
Praying to 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, whose throat is blue, 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, who is the lord of Uma, 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.
‘O Lord, I adore you, the destroyer of Tripura. Your purposes are never baffled. You are robed in skins, you have red hair on your head, you are blue-throated, you are unbearable, irresistible!
‘You are pure; you are the creator of Brahman, you are Brahma, you are an observer of vows, you are a devotee of asceticism, you are the refuge of all great men.
‘For success in overcoming this terrible distress that I am now facing, I sacrifice unto you the five elements of which my body is composed.’
The Favour of Shiva
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.
All of them carry weapons like spears and lances and tridents, and many of them have drums and cymbals hanging off their bodies by means of sacred threads. They appear to be capable of bringing down the entire firmament down to earth if they wish.
At the command of Mahadeva, they can bring about the destruction of all the three worlds. As their shrieks fill the air, and as the golden altar touches the ground, Ashwatthama nears it and performs his prayer.
Ashwatthama Gets Ready
‘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.
Seeing that he has the power of Shiva within him, Ashwatthama enters the gate (nothing further is told of the being that guards it) with instructions for Kripa and Kritavarma.
‘Acharya,’ he says, ‘and O King of the Bhojas, if you two set your mind toward fighting, no Kshatriya on earth can face you and escape with life. Nothing needs to be said of the Pandavas and the Panchalas.
‘So while I career through the camp and kill everyone in sight, I hope that you cast off all mercy from your hearts, and remember how unfairly the Panchalas killed our warriors in battle.’
With these words, Ashwatthama first makes his way 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 and pulling on it.
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.
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.
He also does not spare horses and elephants that are being sheltered in their respective sheds. Covered in the blood of man and beast, he looks at that moment like Yama himself, commanded by time to unleash a noose of death on unsuspecting soldiers.
Those who awaken in time to see him are stupefied with horror; such is his visage that they see the face of Shiva in his, and so spectral is his form that they understand almost by instinct that they are not to fight him.
Neither can they flee from him, however, so they stay in place and wait for the blade of his sword to cut open their throats.
The Upapandavas Die
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.
After the Upapandavas, 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.
The Rakshasas Rejoice
While the camp is in this condition of disarray, Rakshasas begin converging upon it from all four sides, 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 in accordance with Ashwatthama’s command.
To deepen the confusion, Ashwatthama rides around the camp in his chariot with a blazing torch in hand, and sets fire to tents and other flammable material.
Kripa and Kritavarma also enter the enclosure now in their own chariots, and help the son of Drona in setting the place alight.
The Night Ends
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, with Ashwatthama surveying the landscape with the air of one who has accomplished his life’s mission.
The night passes in relative silence from now on, interrupted only by the sounds of chewing and chomping of animals and Rakshasas alike. At the first light of the morning, the son of Drona is congratulated by Kripa and Kritavarma.
‘You have fulfilled the aim with which you came here, O Drauna,’ says Kripa, in a voice that is neither sad nor joyful. ‘The Panchalas and the Srinjayas no longer live. The extent of your vengeance is complete and final.’
Ashwatthama’s hand is still gripped around the sword of Shiva, and so fully is he drenched in blood that the weapon looks like an extension of his body. He inclines his head just once toward his uncle.
‘Those who had exterminated us have now been exterminated, Acharya,’ he says. ‘Let us go to Duryodhana and – if he is still alive – give him the good news.’
News for Duryodhana
At the crack of dawn, 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. Each of the three heroes kneel in turn by the king’s body, and they clutch him to their bosom.
After having paid their respects, they ascend their chariots and leave from there.
This brings the Sauptika Parva to a close.