The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).
Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.
The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.
(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)
In this post, we will answer the question: What happens on the night of Day 18 of the Mahabharata war?
A New Commander
On knowing about the battle between Bhima and Duryodhana, the three surviving members of the Kuru army – Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma – hurry over to where Duryodhana is lying.
Alighting from their cars, they rush toward the Kuru king and sit around him. At last, the son of Drona says in anger: ‘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 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.
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.
When Kripa hears of Ashwatthama’s plan, he immediately points out that the method is fraught with sin. Ashwatthama agrees, but does not want to abandon his idea.
‘What you say is fraught with virtue, Acharya,’ he says. ‘But virtue has been long abandoned in this battle. Do you forget how many of the Kaurava heroes were slain by unfair means?
‘Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishravas and Karna have all been defeated by trickery. And the Panchalas crow as though they have been blessed by the gods! Why do you not censure them for all these deeds? Why do you save your admonishments for me?’
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 an act of sin!’
And as he rides away, Kripa and Kritavarma reluctantly follow him to the Pandava camp.
Ashwatthama is Humbled
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.
The Favour of Shiva
As Ashwatthama sings the praises of Shiva, 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.
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 enters the body of the Kaurava leader.
The power of the three worlds becomes Ashwatthama’s for a night.
Ashwatthama goes on a Rampage
With the power of Shiva behind him, Ashwatthama enters the Panchala camp and begins to kill everyone in sight. Among his exploits of the night are the following:
- Ashwatthama first makes his way toward Dhrishtadyumna’s tent. He drags Dhrishtadyumna to his feet and begins pounding over his body with his fists and heels, using the weapon only to threaten. Dhrishtadyumna vomits blood and dies.
- Then he comes upon the tent of the Upapandavas, the five sons of Draupadi. The princes challenge Ashwatthama to a duel but lose their lives to him in grotesquely violent ways.
- 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 of them.
He leaves the Panchala camp burning in his wake.
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.
What began as a stealth operation now turns into a full-scale massacre.
The Night Passes
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. ‘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, Shikhandin, 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.
With this, the Mahabharata war officially comes to a close.
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