The Sauptika Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the installation of Ashwatthama as the commander of the Kauravas. It ends with the curse of Ashwatthama and the extinction of the Kuru dynasty.
And here it is! From the massacre of the Panchalas to the victory of Duryodhana before his final breath. Enjoy!
A New Commander
Messengers 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.
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.’
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. 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.’
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.’
Thus Ashwatthama becomes the final commander of the Kaurava army – which has now been whittled down to three men.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reflecting thus, Ashwatthama hatches a plot designed to exterminate the Pandavas and the Panchalas.
When Ashwatthama reveals the details of his plan to his two comrades, Kripacharya interrupts with some wisdom, aimed at thwarting his nephew.
I am summarizing the content of his speech in the following points:
- Human beings (says Kripa) are subject to and governed by two forces: destiny and exertion.
- Our acts do not become successful, nor do they fail, because of destiny alone. Nor are they slaves to our exertions alone. All consequences spring from the union of those two.
- Men can either strive or abstain, but they must always know it is a combination of these two factors that produce consequences.
- A competent man might perform all his duties diligently, but if his actions do not align with destiny, they will be unproductive. Similarly, a man chosen by destiny to be a hero cannot become one without persistence and fortitude of his own.
- In this world of men, those who immerse themselves in action always earn the praise of their brothers. No one can find fault with a man who performs all of his work with utmost sincerity, even if fortune eventually deserts him.
- The two reasons for failure, therefore, are destiny without exertion and exertion without destiny. Without exertion, no act in the world becomes successful.
The context within which Kripa imparts this wisdom becomes clear when he says at the end that Duryodhana is the kind of man who has never exerted his effort and has instead relied on the power of others.
‘Such a man does not deserve our support, Ashwatthama,’ Kripa concludes. ‘Let us instead approach Dhritarashtra and Vidura, and ask them for advice.’
Not surprisingly, Ashwatthama makes a counterpoint about how man should always weigh the wisdom of someone else against his own.
‘The faculty of understanding is different in different people, Acharya,’ he says. ‘Every man regards himself more intelligent than others. His own wisdom and his own knowledge is praiseworthy, while those of others is only deserving of slight.
‘A man who has been fortunate in the past will be more confident of his decisions regarding the future, whereas a man who has experienced multiple reverses at the hands of time will necessarily be circumspect and cautious.
‘Also, a man who is older will differ in his judgement to one who is younger. In addition, a man who has ulterior motives might give you advice that is cloaked as wisdom but is poisonous in every respect.
‘With so many different men in the world and their subtly differing points of view, a man who believes in his destiny has no choice but to follow his own mind. Duryodhana did nothing but that. He took the advice of everyone surrounding him, but he ultimately did that which he thought would give him the most profit and pleasure.
I see nothing wrong in it. With the benefit of hindsight, today we call him a fool and a wretch, but I believe that he undertook this battle thinking that he would achieve victory over the Pandavas.
‘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?’
Saying this, Ashwatthama declares that he has his mind set on exacting revenge from the Panchalas.
Ashwatthama is Humbled
Kripa tries to argue with his nephew for a little while, but when the latter shows no signs of budging, the three of them finally resolve to put his plans into action.
When their chariots arrive at the gate of the Pandava camp, they see standing in front of it a gigantic form with a patch of tiger-skin around his loins and a snake wound around his neck. It is Shiva standing guard.
But Ashwatthama does not recognize him, and 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.
When the Brahmin hurls at his enemy a blazing dart that resembles a thunderbolt, the being receives it upon his chest and watches it fall to the ground, blunted and bent out of shape. When Ashwatthama throws a scimitar next, it disappears into the guard’s body as if a mongoose has burrowed into its hole.
With all his weapons thus neutralized, Ashwatthama realizes that he cannot fulfill his quest without the blessings of Shiva. Not knowing that his opponent is the god himself, he sits down cross-legged on the ground, and commits himself to pray to the trident-wielder.
The Favour of 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 has three eyes, who is possessed of multifarious forms, who is the lord of Uma, who resides in crematoriums, who wears matted locks on his head, who is a Brahmachari.’
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 monsters with blazing mouths and eyes, many feet and arms also arrive as if out of nowhere.
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.
‘Sprung from the line of Angirasa,’ says Ashwatthama, approaching the altar, ‘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.’
As the chants surrounding Ashwatthama 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’s fingers close around the hilt of the weapon, Mahadeva, along with his thousands of followers, enter the body of the Kaurava leader.
Carnage in the Pandava Camp
What follows is utter destruction in the Pandava camp. With the power of the three worlds coursing through his veins, Ashwatthama kills Dhrishtadyumna, the Upapandavas, and Shikhandi.
A few details on how he commits these murders:
- Dhrishtadyumna begs Ashwatthama for a quick and sharp death, but the son of Drona pounds him with his fist until he draws blood from the Panchala prince’s mouth. ‘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 says.
- 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. But he easily kills them all in no time.
- Next on Ashwatthama’s list is Shikhandi. Though the son of Drupada leads an entire division of Prabhadrakas against Ashwatthama, the latter repels them with no fuss at all. After making short work of the army, he beheads Shikhandi with his sword.
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.
They see Death-Night in her embodied form, a black image with bloody mouth and bloody eyes, wearing crimson garlands and smeared with crimson unguents. Chanting a dismal note under her breath, she follows Ashwatthama as a devout slave as he walks around the camp.
The text tells us that this dream had visited all the Panchalas and the Pandavas through the eighteen days of war, but they had been unable to discern its meaning. Now, seeing their recurring nightmare come to life, none of them are able to break free of it.
In one night, therefore, with the sword of Shiva in his hands, Ashwatthama avenges the death of all the men of the Kuru army who had died on the battlefield.
With the Rakshasas of the world rejoicing, and arriving in droves to drink the newly shed blood, Ashwatthama – in the company of Kripa and Kritavarma – goes to Duryodhana and gives him the good news.
Duryodhana is on the brink of death at this point, but he is conscious enough to hear Ashwatthama’s words. He exults in barely contained glee.
‘What Bhishma and Karna and Drona had failed to achieve, O Hero,’ he says, ‘you have achieved! I regard myself as fortunate as Indra now. You have made me victorious in this war. I will die in peace. 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.
It is at this moment that Sanjaya loses the gift of spiritual sight given him by Vyasa.
When news reaches the Pandavas – who are spending the night, on Krishna’s advice, on the bank of River Oghavati – they hurry over to the destruction site in their chariots, and Draupadi breaks down to cry over the rotting corpses of her brothers and sons.
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.
‘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.’
She now turns to Vrikodara. ‘Remember the duties of a Kshatriya, Bhima,’ she tells him. ‘I implore you to come to my rescue. Throughout our lives you have been my saviour, my protector. Now do it one more time. Kill the son of Drona, that wicked Ashwatthama, and bring back his jewel to me as souvenir.’
Wombs of the Pandava Women
The Pandavas and Krishna now chase after Ashwatthama, and when they begin to fight, both Ashwatthama and Arjuna use a divine weapon called the Brahmashira. (Some people have said that this is the same as the Brahmastra, but I am not certain.)
Ashwatthama casts the weapon in its offensive form, and Arjuna uses it to defend himself. However, when the gods of heaven and Narada appear to implore the two warriors to call their weapons back, Arjuna does so immediately.
Ashwatthama, however, doesn’t. Whether he doesn’t want to or cannot, we don’t know. But he claims that the weapon has gone too far to pull back, and it will only return after the Pandavas have been killed.
Vyasa, however, suggests that the Brahmashira’s course be altered so that the wombs of the Pandavas’ wives become its targets instead. That way, while the Kuru dynasty may become extinct, the Pandavas will remain alive.
Ashwatthama obeys Vyasa, and the wombs of the Pandava wives become barren in a flash. The fetus growing inside Uttara’s womb also dies because of being struck by the weapon, but Krishna intervenes with his own magic and makes sure that he lives.
This fetus becomes Parikshit, the future king of Hastinapur.
The Curse of Ashwatthama
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 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, taking which they speed back to camp, where Draupadi is sitting in a pose of deep meditation. Bhimasena carries the stone to her, with the rest of the brothers forming a circle around them.
The Story of Shiva
Yudhishthir now asks Krishna how Ashwatthama was able to single-handedly kill the entire Panchala and Somaka army. Krishna replies that it was not Ashwatthama’s prowess but the blessings of Shiva that caused the massacre.
In describing how powerful Shiva is, Krishna tells Yudhishthir an old tale.
Toward the end of the Krita Yuga, Shiva is largely a forgotten member of the pantheon of gods. At this time, with the intention of performing a sacrifice, the gods come together according to the directions laid out in the Vedas. They collect clarified butter and other requisites. And they determine among themselves who should be given what share of the sacred offerings.
Not knowing the nature and power of Rudra, the gods do not assign him a share in the proceedings. When he comes to know of this slight, the hermit-god resolves to destroy that sacrifice, and constructs for himself a bow to aid him in the task.
Using the material from the four kinds of sacrifices, he builds a bow that is five cubits long. The sacred mantra, vashat, becomes its string, and the four parts of a sacrifice become its adornments.
Rudra takes up his bow and advances to where the sacrifice is being conducted. Watching him arrive, the earth herself trembles in fear. Wind ceases to blow. Fire stops burning. The sun dims. The stars in the firmament forget their usual courses and become irregular in their movements. The disc of the moon loses its beauty.
With a shaft, Shiva pierces the heart of Sacrifice, and the embodied form, assuming the shape of a deer, flees from that place with Agni in tow. Rudra pursues the two of them through the skies, and with the loss of the sacrifice and the sacrificial fire, the gods lose their effulgence and senses.
As Mahadeva continues his terrible onslaught, crippling and wounding everyone in his path, the gods come to the realization that the three-eyed one is not to be messed with. Singing their praises and arranging for Sacrifice to be brought to him, they attempt to gratify him. They ask for his forgiveness, and assure him that the best share of the offerings will be given to him.
The great god is pleased with the attention. He throws his wrath into the water, which still burns at the nub of the great ocean, we are told, consuming all the liquid elements around it.
With the anger of Shiva satiated, peace once again returns to the universe, and from then on, he is made the prime partaker of offerings in any sacrifice, next to only Agni.
Concluding the story, Krishna reiterates that it was the power of Shiva that destroyed the Pandava camp, not Ashwatthama.
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