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 Aishika Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
News Reaches Yudhishthir
After that night had passed away, the charioteer of Dhrishtadyumna, who manages to escape the night-time assault, seeks out the Pandavas on the bank of Oghavati and tells them all about the marauding Ashwatthama, and the destruction he had left behind.
‘Alas,’ says the eldest Pandava, ‘after having vanquished the foe, we now find ourselves vanquished. Even by people gifted by the sharpest spiritual vision, the course of events is impossible to be determined.
‘Our enemy, who we thought we had defeated, have now scored another victory over us. Having slain brothers, friends, fathers and sons of the enemy, we now stand here, bereft of companions ourselves!
‘Alas, I am destined to grieve at this moment of victory, and our prosperity has turned to misery. We have been doubly defeated by our foes; first, we were forced to fight and kill a number of our kinsmen in the name of duty.
‘And now, after we had won that fight, we have lost all those who have fought on our side as well.’
Yudhishthir continues: ‘Alas, what else but fate could kill all those soldiers who managed to escape the arrows of Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Shalya?
‘After having fought through numerous mazes and after having overcome so many stratagems, they find themselves slain in their sleep. That is the lowest form of death for a warrior; what else but destiny can be held responsible for such a turn of events?
‘I grieve the most, today, for Krishnaa. Hearing of the slaughter of her brothers, kinsmen and sons, she will be torn by grief. What will be her plight when she hears of the extermination of the entire Panchala dynasty? Indeed, she will be scorched by fire.’
Yudhishthir now sends Nakula to the quarters of Draupadi – where she is staying with the other Panchala women – to break the news to her. With the others, he rides out to Kurukshetra, and to their encampment where Ashwatthama let himself loose the night before.
Seeing Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi and the Upapandavas lying dead among thousands of mangled bodies, he breaks down and weeps.
While the Pandavas are surveying the damage left behind by Ashwatthama, Nakula brings Draupadi there in his chariot. The princess of Panchala is left aghast at what she sees, and for a while she sheds tears for the death of all the people of her race.
But then she gathers herself and approaches Yudhishthir.
‘O King,’ she says, ‘you have won the earth at great cost. Your friends are dead. Your sons are dead. Only your brothers and wife remain. You do not, I gather, recollect that your sons have been slaughtered by that wretch, Ashwatthama.
‘Not until you have claimed your vengeance upon the son of your preceptor can this war be considered finished. Until you take up your arms again, O King, and slay that man who slew all your dear ones, I shall not consider myself your wife.
‘Until that moment I shall sit here and perform severe austerities. I shall give up my life to prayer.’
Yudhishthir does not think that further violence is the answer to the situation. ‘Ashwatthama has been seen driving into the forest, Draupadi,’ he says. ‘None of us know where he is. How shall we challenge him to a duel, and how shall we exact our vengeance?’
But Draupadi is adamant. ‘I am told that the son of Drona has a gemstone buried deep in his skull, and that he was born with it. Only after I see that jewel brought to me will I know peace.
I wish that this adornment should sit on your head, O King, as you claim your throne. And I shall sit by your side as your wife.’
Bhima Answers the Call
She now turns to Vrikodara, who she perhaps thinks will be more receptive to her pleas. ‘Remember the duties of a Kshatriya, Bhima,’ she tells him. ‘It behoves you to come to my rescue.
‘It is known throughout the world how you came to the rescue of Varanavata when its denizens asked for your help. Later, when we were attacked by Hidimba, you again exerted your powers to save us. You also saved my honour during our time in Virata’s kingdom.
‘Now is another occasion for you to exact revenge, my lord. Kill the son of Drona, that wicked Ashwatthama, and bring back his jewel to me as souvenir.’
Not able to endure his wife’s grief, Bhima mounts upon his chariot and takes up his bow. Making Nakula his charioteer, he sets out from the Pandava camp following the tracks left behind by Ashwatthama’s horses.
As Bhimasena’s chariot disappears from view in a cloud of dust, Krishna steps forward and addresses Yudhishthir. ‘Your younger brother does not know what he is up against,’ he says.
‘And in his foolishness, he has set out to fight Ashwatthama on his own. But the son of Drona possesses a weapon by the name Brahmashira, given to him by his father, which is capable of destroying the three worlds.
‘Drona first taught Arjuna the chant that would turn a normal arrow into a missile of destruction. When Ashwatthama came to know of this, he was consumed with jealousy and repeatedly exhorted his father to teach him the secret too.
Drona did so reluctantly, overcome as he was by filial love. However, he did warn his son that the weapon should never be used even when faced by death, especially against other human beings.’
Krishna now tells Yudhishthir a story of Ashwatthama’s one-time visit to Dwaraka.
Visit to Dwaraka
When you were in the forest (says Krishna), Ashwatthama once visited Dwaraka and offered me a trade. Calling upon me one evening in private, he said, ‘O Krishna, the great weapon Brahmashira is now in my possession.
‘I will give it to you if you, in return, give me your Sudarshana Chakra.’
I told him that he was free to take the discus without giving me anything in return. ‘All the energy of the three worlds resides in me, O Drauna,’ I said.
‘I shall give you any of my weapons – the bow, the discus, the dart or the mace. Tell me which one you want. You need not give me anything in exchange.’
Ashwatthama said again that he wanted the discus, and I told him to take it. He tried to first lift it with his left hand, then his right. Having failed to budge it, he heaved against it with his entire body.
Wicked and Guileless
‘You are unable to even move it one inch, O Hero,’ I said. ‘How do you propose to wield it?’ Then, seeing that he was consumed by sorrow, I told him that no one but I can carry my weapons.
‘Not Arjuna, not Pradyumna, not Balarama, not Satyaki – not even men who I consider my brothers have ever asked me to part with my weapons, Ashwatthama. You have summoned much courage in doing so. Might I ask what you intended to do once you got the discus?’
And Ashwatthama replied, ‘I wished to fight and destroy you, O Krishna.’
Concluding this tale, Krishna tells Yudhishthir, ‘That son of Drona is wicked, guileless, wrathful and cruel. He will stop at nothing to crush Vrikodara into the dust. He will not think twice about using the Brahmashira, for what has he got to lose?
‘Come, O Kaunteya. Let us hurry. Bhimasena will need to be protected from the unfathomable anger of Ashwatthama.’
Saying these words, Krishna mounts his chariot, which is equipped with all kinds of diverse weapons. Two horses of the Kamboja breed are yoked to it, and are adorned with garlands of gold.
The horse on the front-right is called Saivya whereas the one on the front-left is called Sugriva. The rear ones are named Meghapushpa and Balahaka respectively.
On this car which bears the colour of the rising sun, a celestial standard points up at the sky, decked with gems and gold, created by Vishwakarma. Upon this banner stands the image of Garuda, the son of Vinata, shining with great splendour.
After Krishna ascends this car, Arjuna and Yudhishthir climb into it as well and take their spots on either side of the Yadava prince. (No mention is made here of Sahadeva’s whereabouts. Once might imagine he is standing around here to care for Draupadi.)
The three of them are taken at great speed to catch up with Bhimasena.
A Blade of Grass
Meanwhile, the second Pandava, in his chariot being driven by Nakula, reaches the bank of River Ganga, where the island-born sage Vyasa is sitting in deep meditation, surrounded by a large conclave of rishis.
Amid them is Ashwatthama too, his entire body covered in dried blood and dust, his hand still holding on to the sword of Shiva.
When he sees Bhima approach, and the chariot of Krishna arrive from behind at the same time, he becomes agitated. He thinks that he has been cornered, that his moment of death has come.
So he recalls to mind the weapon called the Brahmashira that his father had taught him, and breathes all that power into a blade of grass that he uproots from the ground.
With his powerful mantra a celestial weapon appears in his hand. And he whispers, ‘To the death of the Pandavas!’ As the weapon catches fire, and burns with the ferocity of Samvartaka, a perplexed Bhimasena draws an arrow from his quiver and sets it on his bow.
But Krishna is quick to bring Arjuna into the battle. ‘This is the time, O Falguna,’ he says, ‘to use that weapon which neutralizes everything in its path. That son of Drona has done even as I predicted he would.
‘Now use the same weapon that your preceptor has given you, and cast it in its defensive form so that you might protect the three worlds.’
Withdrawing the Brahmashira
Thus addressed by Kesava, Arjuna takes out an arrow himself and places it on the tip of his nose with his eyes closed.
He prays for the good of the son of Drona, of himself, of his brothers, of Krishna, of the assembled sages, of Ganga, and of the rest of the three worlds in that order. Then he says, ‘May this wonderful weapon neutralize the chants of Ashwatthama.’
And he hurls it into the air.
This brings about many fearsome omens. Numerous peals of thunder rend the sky. Thousands of blazing meteors fall to the earth. All living creatures become inspired with dread.
The whole of the earth, along with her rivers and mountains and seas, trembles. The entire sky seems to be filled with noise, and it assumes a terrible purple aspect, as if night is about to fall.
At this point, Narada appears on the side of Dwaipayana, and the both of them admonish the two warriors. ‘Many great heroes took part in the war of Kurukshetra,’ they say:
‘But none of them used celestial weapons like this because they were wary of destroying the three worlds. Why do you, O heroes, act in such a rash manner?’
Arjuna is quick to yield. With his hands joined in reverence, he says, ‘I only cast my weapon to neutralize that which the preceptor’s son has used. I only wished to protect.
‘If I withdraw my weapon, then the three worlds will be destroyed. I would like to obey you, O Sages, but only if you can devise a way out of this dilemma.’
Narada gives his assurance, and Arjuna, with great skill, recalls his Brahmashira. We are told here that it is exceedingly difficult to call back a weapon of this power, and one needs to be entirely pure of mind and soul in order to be able to do it.
Ashwatthama, on the other hand, does not possess the requisite purity of mind. Instead, he takes to blaming Bhimasena for his act. ‘I let go of my weapon only because I thought that that wicked Bhima is coming to kill me, O Sage,’ he says.
‘And now I dare not withdraw it, because it has already been cast. It has been contrived to take the lives of the Pandavas, and it shall return only after finishing its purpose.’
Vyasa thinks it over and suggests an alternative path.
‘Arjuna is patient and honest,’ says Vyasa. ‘He knows that if a weapon such as the Brahmashira is neutralized by another celestial weapon, the surrounding area will be cursed by a twelve-year drought.
‘So, out of kindness to the living beings of this region, he has called back his weapon. As for you, you are not sufficiently skilled to do so. And yet the Pandavas must be protected. Arjuna must be protected.
‘Give them the gem that rests on your head, O Drauna. They have come to take it off you. If you do not give it of your own free will, they will take it after killing you.
‘And then redirect the Brahmashira weapon toward the wombs of the Pandava women so that the sons of Pandu themselves are rescued.’
Ashwatthama does as he is told, and the moment that weapon is directed at the wombs of the Pandava women, all the wives of the five brothers – including Draupadi – are instantly cursed with the inability to have children in the future.
This has the potential to become a difficult problem, because even if the Pandavas marry other women, the curse would presumably continue to act on them. In essence, therefore, the Kuru line is cursed by this one act to become extinct.
The Son of Uttara
Krishna, however, is cheerful. ‘Do not worry, Yudhishthir,’ he says. ‘The daughter of Virata and the wife of Abhimanyu, Uttara, was once blessed by a Brahmin of pious vows during your time in Upaplavya.
“When the Kuru line ends,” he told her, “a son will be born to you who will be called Parikshit, who will ascend the throne and rule for many glorious years.” The words of that man will come true. You will have a successor to the throne.’
But Ashwatthama is quick to rebut this notion. ‘What you say, O Kesava, out of partiality toward the Pandavas, will not come to pass,’ he says. ‘The weapon that I have sent will fall upon the womb of Uttara as well, and the foetus growing inside her will die this very moment.’
‘No doubt the foetus will die!’ thunders Krishna, his eyes blazing. ‘But he shall live again by my decree, and he shall rule for a long time indeed. He shall, on attaining his age, be trained in the knowledge of the Vedas and that of weapons by Kripacharya.
‘Having learnt the skill of arms and of polity, observant of all Kshatriya duties, he will rule the earth for sixty years.’
Ashwatthama is Cursed
Krishna now turns his wrath onto the son of Drona. ‘As for you, Ashwatthama,’ he says, ‘all the wise men of Earth know that you are sinful and a coward. You are the slayer of sleeping men and of unborn children!
‘Unable to win the battle by fair means, you have taken to cutting off the neck of your enemy when he is asleep. For these sins you will wander over the earth for three thousand years hence, alone and friendless.
‘You will have no companions, O Drauna. You will roam over diverse countries, but you will have no place in the midst of men.
‘The stench of pus and blood that you carry on your body now will never leave you, and only dense forests and dreary moors will be your home.
‘With the weight of all diseases known to man falling upon your shoulders, you will drag your existence along the endless stretches of time, regretting every moment of it.’
Vyasa Supports Krishna
Vyasa says, ‘You are a Brahmin by birth, Ashwatthama, but you have not acted like one. As such, you have never been a true Kshatriya either. In the full sight of all these great men, you have resolved to cause the destruction of the world with your Brahmashira weapon.
‘Due to all these faults, the words of the son of Devaki are warranted. Each of them will come true.’
Ashwatthama accepts the judgement with calm, perhaps realizing that there is nothing more he can do. ‘I shall stay with you for a while, O Sage,’ he tells Vyasa, ‘if you permit me.
‘Let the words of the illustrious prince of Dwaraka come true, as you have decided. I shall accept my punishment with grace.’
He hands over the jewel to the Pandavas.
Bhimasena carries the stone to Draupadi, with the rest of the brothers forming a circle around them.
‘This jewel, my lady,’ he says, ‘is yours. The slayer of your sons has been vanquished. That wretched Duryodhana, that obstacle in our way to sovereignty, has been slain.
‘I have drunk the blood of Duhsasana when he was in the throes of death. We have paid off the debt we owed our enemy.The son of Drona, we have spared with life out of respect to our dead preceptor. His fame has been destroyed.
‘His life henceforth will be hell. His soul has been obliterated, O Panchali. Only his body remains, an empty shell. We have brought you his gemstone as prize. Take it and end your austerities.’
Draupadi gets up on her feet and bows to her husbands. Taking the jewel, she says, ‘The son of the preceptor is deserving of respect as much as the preceptor is. It is right of you to have spared him.’
She walks over to Yudhishthir and offers the gem to him. ‘Place this on your head, O King,’ she says, ‘and rule over the earth in great glory till the end of our days.’
With this, the Aishika Parva ends.