Krishna is considered by many as the hero of the Mahabharata. He is the eighth son of Devaki, the princess of Mathura, and Vasudeva, the prince of Shurasena.
Krishna is raised in a cowherd settlement in Vrindavan for the first fifteen years of his life. Later, along with Balarama, he founds the seashore city of Dwaraka and builds a kingdom for the Yadavas – named Anarta.
He enters the Mahabharata story at Draupadi’s swayamvara, and quickly establishes friendly relations with the Pandavas – in particular with Arjuna. This friendship lasts all the way to the Kurukshetra war and beyond.
In this post, we will answer the question: Why did Krishna curse Ashwatthama?
After the Kurukshetra war has ended, Ashwatthama and Arjuna get into a duel. During this fight, Ashwatthama uses the Brahmastra. When Vyasa appears and asks him to withdraw it, Ashwatthama says he is unable to, and points it at Uttara’s womb instead, killing the foetus inside it. This act angers Krishna. He curses Ashwatthama.
Read on to discover more about why Krishna cursed Ashwatthama.
(For answers to all Krishna-related questions, see Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Late on the eighteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, Duryodhana anoints Ashwatthama as his next commander, even though the Kuru army has been whittled down to three able men: Kripa, Kritavarma and Ashwatthama.
The three men set out at night toward the Pandava camp, still unsure of what they plan to do in order to secure Duryodhana’s victory. Then, at the bottom of a tree, Ashwatthama sees an owl murdering the chicks of a sparrow in a nest.
He decides that this is a message from the gods, and that they are telling him to attack the Panchalas in the dead of the night – like an owl.
Kripa tries to argue his nephew out of it, but Ashwatthama has already made up his mind. To further matters along, outside the Pandava camp, he meets and receives blessings from Lord Shiva.
With the power of Mahadeva coursing through his veins, Ashwatthama administers the final cleansing ritual of the war: he slits the throats of thousands of Panchala and Somaka men while they’re sleeping.
This is a heinous act; of all the practices frowned upon for a Kshatriya, killing one’s enemy when the enemy is sleeping is the ugliest. There is no baser form of violence.
(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Sauptika Parva.)
The Pandavas Survive
As it happens, the Pandavas do not spend that night at their camp. Krishna takes them on a pretext to the bank of the river Oghavati. Ashwatthama therefore does not find the sons of Kunti during his attack.
All the other great warriors perish. Chief among them are Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi and the Upapandavas.
After the massacre is complete, Ashwatthama goes back to Duryodhana and gives him a report. Duryodhana is ecstatic that a feat that has eluded the likes of Drona and Bhishma has been completed by Ashwatthama.
He proclaims himself satisfied and happy, and then he breathes his last.
Meanwhile, the Pandavas come to know of what has happened during the night, and they hurry back to witness the bloodshed. Then they carry the bad news to Draupadi – who has to contend with the loss of her two brothers and five sons.
Draupadi wishes for Revenge
For a short while Draupadi weeps over the death of her kinsmen. Then, collecting herself, she addresses Yudhishthir.
‘You cannot call to an end to the war just yet, O son of Dharma,’ she says. ‘The war cannot be finished until the killer of my brothers and sons has been destroyed. How can such an act go unpunished?’
However, Krishna muses that he is powerless to punish Ashwatthama for his deed. When asked why, he says, ‘Because it has happened with the blessings of Shiva. The lord must have had a reason for allowing it to happen. It is not my place to question it.’
Desperate, Draupadi turns to Bhima and instigates him into action. ‘You have always been my protector and friend, Bhimasena,’ she says. ‘Will you forsake me at this, my most grief-stricken moment?’
Bhima springs to his feet, picks up his weapon, and promises Draupadi that the death of the Upapandavas will be avenged. He summons his chariot and sets out on Ashwatthama’s trail.
Krishna, Arjuna and the other Pandavas reluctantly follow him.
Arjuna versus Ashwatthama
After the Pandavas find Ashwatthama, Krishna suggests that Arjuna should take him on because Bhima is not enough of a match to the son of Drona when the latter is in such a ruthless mood.
A duel thus begins between Ashwatthama and Arjuna. The battle escalates quickly, and as the onlookers watch, Ashwatthama picks out the Brahmastra and hurls it at Arjuna.
Arjuna uses his own Brahmastra in response, casting it in its defensive form. But the prospect of two Brahmastras clashing against one another is scary enough for Vyasa to intervene.
He first approaches Arjuna and requests him to withdraw his missile. Arjuna does so. When Vyasa makes the same request of Ashwatthama, however, the latter says, ‘I am not skilful enough to call it back, O Sage, but I will make sure that I divert it from Arjuna.’
Ashwatthama veers the weapon off its target, but then points it toward all the wombs of the Pandava women, instantly making all of them sterile. This includes the womb of Uttara, where Abhimanyu’s son is growing.
This act of violence by Ashwatthama – deliberately designed to wipe out the Pandava line – kills the baby growing in Uttara’s stomach, and angers Krishna.
Krishna Curses Ashwatthama
Krishna steps into the fold now and says, ‘No doubt the foetus will die! But he will live again by my decree. And he will live a long life. On attaining his age, he will be trained in the Vedas by Kripacharya. He will rule this earth for sixty years.’
(Krishna is speaking here of King Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu who becomes king of Indraprastha after the Pandavas. It is Parikshit’s son, Janamejaya, who performs the snake-sacrifice where the story of the Mahabharata is told.)
Krishna then turns his wrath onto Ashwatthama. ‘As for you,’ 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.
‘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.’
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 55: Ashwatthama is Cursed.)
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.
‘Due to all these faults, the words of the son of Devaki are warranted. Each of them will come true.’
Vyasa then instructs Ashwatthama to hand over the gem in his forehead to the Pandavas. Bhimasena carries the ornament to Draupadi, who is sitting in a state of deep meditation at the desolate camp.
Bhima tells Draupadi that Ashwatthama has not been killed because of the decree of Vyasa, but that he has been vanquished and cursed to a state worse than hell. Draupadi accepts the gift from Bhima and nods.
‘The son of a preceptor is as worthy of respect as the preceptor is,’ she says quietly. ‘You were right to have spared his life.’ She then carries the stone to Yudhishthir, and asks him to wear it on his head.
Ashwatthama commits two heinous sins during the end of the Kurukshetra war:
- First, he kills thousands of Panchala and Somaka soldiers in the dead of the night, when they are sleeping.
- Second, he uses the Brahmastra to magically sterilize the wombs of all the wives of the Pandavas so that their line will go extinct.
For the first sin, Krishna does not punish Ashwatthama because he respects the wishes of Lord Shiva, who approved of Ashwatthama’s act. For the second sin, though, Krishna curses Ashwatthama with a long and tedious life on Earth.
Ashwatthama, therefore, becomes one of the immortals – but he is the only one to have been given it as a curse, not a gift.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story