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Ashwatthama in Javanese Wayang

A character of the Indian epic Mahābhārata, Ashwatthama (Sanskrit: अश्वत्थामा, Aśvatthāmā) or Ashwatthaman (Sanskrit: अश्वत्थामन्, Aśvatthāman) was the son of guru Drona.Drona did many years of severe penance to please lord Siva in order to obtain a son who possesses the same valiance as of Lord Siva. Aswatthama is the avatar of one of the eight Rudras and he is one of the seven Chiranjivi's or the immortal ones. Aswatthama is believed to be the lone survivor still living who actually fought in the kurukshetra war. Aswatthama was born with a gem in his forehead which gives him power over all living beings lower than humans. This gem is supposed to protect him from attacks by ghosts, demons, poisonous insects, snakes, animals etc. Dronacharya loved him very dearly. The rumours about his death in the Kurukshetra war led to the death of Drona at the hands of Prince Dhrishtadyumna. He is the grandson of the Brahmin sage Bharadwaja. Ashwatthama is a mighty Maharathi[1] who fought on the Kaurava side against the Pandavas.

Along with sage Parashurama and sage Vyasa, Aswatthama is considered to be foremost among the rishis. Aswatthama will become the next sage Vyasa, who in turn divide the Veda in 29th Mahayuga of 7th Manavantra. Aswatthama will also become one of the Sapta Rishis in the 8th Manavantara.[2] His physical description in the Mahabharata is that he is incredibly tall, with dark skin, dark eyes, and a gem in his forehead. Like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Karna, and Arjuna, he is a master of the science of weapons and is regarded as the foremost among warriors.[3] Aswatthama studied Dhanurveda or martial arts and Brahmavidya or the science of the Self or Atma from Lord Parasurama,Maharishi Durvasa,Maharishi Ved Vyasa, Bhishma,Kripa and Drona. Aswatthama is the master of all forms of knowledge and possess complete mastery over 64 forms of arts or Kalas and 18 Vidyas or branches of knoweldge.


According to The Mahabharata, Aswatthaman means "the horse-voiced".[4][5] It is so called because when he was born he cried like a horse[6]

Drona's love for Ashwatthama

Ashwatthama was the son of Dronacharya and Kripi, sister of Kripacharya. Drona loved his son very dearly. Dronacharya was very poor. Once when Ashwatthama was a child, he desired to drink milk, like he had seen friends drink. Not even owning a cow, Ashwatthama painted his lips with a mixture of wheat flour with water, making it seem as if he had drank milk. This scene saddened Dronacharya. He remembered his childhood friend Drupada, who in a spurt of youthful exuberance, had promised to give Drona half of whatever he had . Dronacharya went to the court of Drupada to ask for a cow. King Drupada humiliated Drona, saying friendship existed only between equals. He told Drona to ask as a Brahmin asks for alms, but not as a friend, and Drupada would do his kingly duty and provide whatever he asked. Refusing, Dronacharya returned empty-handed and humiliated.

After this incident, on seeing the plight of Dronacharya, Kripacharya, who was teaching the Kuru princes, invited Drona to Hastinapur. There, he came upon the attention of his co-disciple Bhishma. Thus, Dronacharya became the guru of the Pandavas and of the Kauravas in Hastinapur. Ashwatthama was trained in the art of warfare along with them.[7]

Avatar of Lord Shiva

Ashwatthama, the powerful son of Drona, though known as the part incarnate of Rudra, was really born of the four parts of Yama,Rudra, Cupidity and Anger.Just before Mahabaratha war,Bhishma himself declared that it will be virtually impossible for anyone to kill or defeat Ashwatthama in war as he is the part incarnate of Lord Siva.Bhishma said when Ashwatthama becomes angry then it will be impossible to fight him as he becomes a second Siva.No one can handle his wrath and fury.

Lord Krishna and sage Vyasa also know about this and they advised Arjuna to seek the blessing of Lord Siva himself to defeat Kaurava army in war otherwise it will be impossible to defeat the army containing Ashwatthama,the part incarnate of Lord Siva .While Arjun was doing penance Lord Indra went to Arjuna in the guise of a celibate and asked about the purpose for which he was doing penance. Arjuna told him that he wanted to defeat the Kauravas. Indra then told Arjuna that it was not in his capacity to help him achieve victory over the Kauravas, because of Ashwatthama who was a partial incarnation of lord Shiva.Indra advised Arjuna to please lord Shiva by his penance so that his wishes could be fulfilled.Lord Siva blessed victory to Arjuna but warned that it is impossible for anyone to kill Ashwatthama or agitate his anger.Later the false story of Ashwatthama death led to the assassination of his father Guru Drona.The tragic death of Drona made Aswathama extremely angry and these events led to the complete annihilation of Pandava lineage by the hands of Ashwatthama himself.[8]

Ashwatthama's role in the Kurukshetra war

Ashwatthama uses Narayanastra

Since Hastinapur, ruled by King Dhritarashtra, offered Dronacharya the privilege of teaching the Kuru princes, both Dronacharya and Ashwatthama were loyal to Hastinapur and fought for the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. Before Dronacharya's death, Ashwatthama visited his father in order to seek his blessing so that he could win the war for the Kauravas, but Dronacharya refused. He advised Ashwatthama to win the war using his own strength and not through a blessing from him.

Despite his friendship with the Pandavas, Ashwatthama had great familiarity with Duryodhana. He was attracted to Duryodhana's gregarious nature, and to Duryodhana's largesse bestowed upon him. Moreover, just as Duryodhana believed that the Pandavas were taking his birthright to the crown, Ashwatthama felt that the Pandava Arjuna was usurping his place in Drona's heart.

On the 10th day of the war, Bhisma got severely wounded and was placed on bed of arrows, Drona (Ashwatthama's father) is named the supreme commander of the armies. He promises Duryodhana that he will capture Yudhishthira, but then he repeatedly fails to do so. Duryodhana taunts and insults him, which greatly angers Ashwatthama. This causes friction between Ashwatthama and Duryodhana. Knowing that it would be impossible to beat Drona conventionally in battle, the Pandavas lie and tell him that Ashwatthama (his son) has been killed by Bhima (when in reality, Bhima had just killed an elephant of the same name). Believing that his son has been killed, and in despair at the news, Drona drops his weapons and begins meditating. While he is defenseless, he is decapitated by Dhristadyumna. Thus, on the 15th day of battle, Drona is killed. Ashwatthama rages against the Pandavas, and refuses to allow the Pandavas to attend his father's last rites.

Despite his animosity, after the death of Dushasana, Ashwatthama still suggested Duryodhana that he make peace with the Pandavas, keeping in mind the welfare of Hastinapur. Duryodhana strongly rejected his suggestion.

Ashwatthama's attack on Pandava camp

Arastthaman propitiates Śiva before and making a night attack on the Pandava camp

On the last night of the war after Duryodhana's defeat, a very disturbed and restless Ashwatthama was sitting sleepless under a large tree. An owl ambushing a group of crows caught his attention. This gave him an idea of attacking the Pandava camp at night. He gathered the only other surviving Kaurava warriorsKritavarma and Kripacharya and attacked the Pandava camp on the 18th night of the Kurukshetra war. Aswatthama worshiped and invoked KalBhairav, a form of Lord Siva responsible for destroying everything, even time and seek his help and blessing for attacking the Pandava camp.KalBhairava entered into the body of Aswatthama and with the sword of KalBhairav, aswattahma burned the entire Pandava camp to ashes leaving nothing behind. He strangled Dhrishtadyumna to death in his sleep, beating and thrashing the semi-conscious warrior. He moved on and killed Shikhandi, Uttamaujas and many other prominent warriors of the Pandava army. Those who tried to flee from Ashwatthama's wrath, were hacked down by Kripacharyya and Kritavarma at the camp's entrance. He killed Draupadi's five sons, the Upapandavas, while they were sleeping, believing them to be the five Pandava brothers. In some versions of the story, he knows that they aren't the Pandavas, but kills them anyways because he cannot find their fathers.

After destroying the entire Pandava camp, Ashwatthama proceeds towards Duryodana claiming that he had beheaded the Pandavas. When he, Kripa, and Kritverma arrive, Duryodhana is already dead. A voice shouts out that Ashwatthama hadn't killed the Pandvas, but the Upapandavas. Ashwatthama, realizing his mistake, went to Sage Vedavyasa's ashram in order to seek salvation (prayaschittam) for his crime.

There are many different versions of the above tale where Duryodhana is not dead upon Ashwatthama's arrival. In some, Ashwatthama simply lies to Duryodhana to give him some peace before death. In others, he tells what he thinks is true in that he killed the Pandavas, and Duryodhana dies happily. In even others, he tells Duryodhana that he only managed to kill the Pandava's children, and this makes Duryodhana happy as that means that the Pandava lineage would die out.

Aswattahma believed that it was acceptable for him to attack the unexpected Pandavas due to his father’s death by unjust means. Although he did believe his vengeance to be justified, he was warned by people of his own side that it was not. Kripa even tells Aswatthama to seek the advice of Dhritarashtra and Vidura, elders of his family who are much wiser and more experienced than the young Aswatthama. “Aswatthama rejects Kripa’s reasoning: all men favour their own judgements Aswatthama, though a Brahmin, has always followed the Kshatriya Dharma."[9] They are not too pleased with Aswattahma‘s words and advise him not to go through with this adharmic plan. “Kripa emphasises the importance of taking the advise of friends and elders, and counsels Aswatthama against pursuing his plan.".[10] After aswatthamas attack on Pandava camp, only Satyaki,Lord Krishna and fives Pandavas were the remaining survivors of the kurukshetra war from Pandava side.

The Pandavas and Krishna who were away during night, now returned to their camp the next day morning. Incensed over this act of Ashwatthama, the Pandavas went after him to sage Vyasa's ashram. On seeing the approaching angered Pandavas, Ashwatthama who learnt that he had killed the upapandavas and not the Pandavas, realised that he was trapped with the Pandavas. As a last resort, he used his sacred knowledge of the Vedas to devise a Bramhashirastra from a blade of grass and invoked it against the Pandavas and Krishna. On seeing the Brahmashirastra approaching the Pandavas, Krishna asked Arjuna to invoke the same. Arjuna invokes Bramhashirastra, which he received by Dronacharya itself, towards Ashwatthama.

On seeing the two powerful astras heading for a head on cataclysmic (catastrophic) collision that would result in the total annihilation of the entire Earth, sage Vyasa stopped these divine weapons from colliding with each other by using his yogic power. He asked both these warriors to withdraw their respective weapons. Arjuna was able to withdraw his Brahmashirastra, while Ashwatthama could not do so as Dronocharya did not teach his son how to withdraw it.An archer who is able to invoke and withdraw any Divyastra (Divine Weapon) can invoke it as many times as he wishes. Dronacharya taught Arjuna to withdraw Brahmashirastra but he did not do so to Ashwathama, thus limiting the power of Ashwathama to invoke Brahmashirastra for only one instance. However, Ahswathama was given the option of deviating his weapon towards one single isolated object in a place that was not inhabited by any form of life, so that the Brahmashirastra does not harm anyone on Earth. But Ashwatthama, out of rage, directed the weapon towards the womb of Uttara (wife of Abhimanyu) who was carrying Abhimanyu's son (Parikshit) in an attempt to end the lineage of the Pandavas.The angered Pandavas want to kill Aswatthama, but Sage Vyasa prohibited Pandavas from doing so because Pandavas themselves employed deceit to kill their own Guru Drona. Sage Vyasa explained that it was due to the severe sin of killing their Guru Drona by unethical means ,the Pandavas suffered severe tragedy and their entire lineage came to extinction. Further Sage Vyasa warned Pandavas that he will curse Pandavas if they ever tried to kill aswatthama, the lone survivor of their Gurus lineage.

Ashwatthama's Fate

Ashwatthama had a gem which was similar to Shamantakamani on his forehead which used to protect the wearer from fear of any snakes, ghosts, demigods,demons,old age and diseases. So Ashwatthama was asked to surrender this gem.Enraged Krishna then cursed Ashwatthama that for 3000 years he will roam in the forests with blood and puss oozing out of his injuries and cry for death but even death would not have mercy on him. He will have neither any hospitality nor any accommodation; He will be in total isolation from mankind and society; The wound caused by the removal of this gem on his forehead will not heal and his body will suffer from a host of incurable diseases forming sores and ulcers that would never heal for 3000 years" . It is believed that in Kaliyuga, his name will be "Suryakanta".[11]

Alternate theories about Ashwatthama's fate

In a Kannada version of Mahabaratha written by Kumara Vyasa, the author claimed that he wrote Mahabaratha by listening to Sage Aswatthama. It was said in different sources and alternate theories that, in order to escape from the curse of Lord Krishna, Aswatthama approached his Parama Guru (guru's guru) Lord Parasurama, who was also an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Lord Parasurama felt pity at Aswatthama and agreed to help him. It was said that Aswatthama was only an instrument in Lord KalBhairav's or Lord Siva's plan to exterminate all the evil people from earth. Since it was KalBhairav who entered into Aswatthama's body and exterminated Pandava forces, Aswatthama was absolved of all sins. It was said that Pandavas met Aswathama once again 36 years later when they where travelling to Himalayas to seek pardon from Lord Siva for their heinous crimes in war. The description says, Pandavas found Aswatthama happy in the company of Lord Parasurama and Sage Durvasa in an ashram on the banks of river Ganga and Aswatthama was found free from all curses. It was believed that Lord Parasurama and Maharishi Durvasa initiated Aswatthama into Sakthi worship, which is considered to be the supreme of all modes of worship. By worshipping Adi ParaSakthi, the mother of Lord Brahma,Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, Aswatthama bypassed the curse of Lord Krishna.[12]

It is said in ancient scriptures that "If God is angry at you, Guru can save you. But if Guru is angry at you, even God cannot save you". Alternate theories suggest that as per the words in scriptures Aswatthama sought the help of his gurus and escaped the wrath of God.

Krishna revives Abhimanyu's son

Krishna revives Abhimanyu's son

Uttara delivered a child which was dead. Beseeched by Draupadi,Krishna poured a few drops of water on his hands and said, "If I have truly followed Dharma throughout my life, then let this child come back to life." He sprinkled the water on the child and touched him on his chest, reviving Abhimanyu's son. In this way, Abhimanyu's son, Parikshit(the one who has been tested, when he was in his mother's womb) gets his name.

Despite Ashwatthama's efforts, the Pandavas ruled for 36 years. After the end of Pandavas, Parikshit ruled Hastinapur for 27 years and was succeeded by Janamejaya.

Ashwatthama and Brahmashir Astra

Ashwatthama and Brahmashirastra

Ashwatthama seeks the knowledge of Brahmashir from his father Dronacharya.

The partial knowledge of Abhimanyu and Ashwatthama

Abhimanyu is often quoted as an example for his partial knowledge about Chakravyuha. Abhimanyu knew how to penetrate the Chakravyha, but did not know how to exit from it during the time of danger contributed to his death. Similarly, Ashwatthama had a partial knowledge in the context of Bramhashirastra. He only knew how to invoke it, but did not know how to withdraw it. It was only Arjuna who had complete knowledge of both Chakravyuha (to break and exit from it) and Bramhashirastra (to invoke and withdraw it).

In case of Ashwatthama, Dronacharya teaches Ashwatthama only to invoke Bramhashirastra, but does not teach him how to withdraw it. If an archer is aware of both the invocation and withdrawal of any celestial weapon, then he can invoke it as many times as he wants. Hence, to avoid Ashwatthama from invoking Bramhashirastra multiple times, Dronacharya only gives a partial knowledge about it. If an archer invokes Bramhashirastra once, it not only destroys the target, but also leads to a famine in the region for 12 years. If a Bramhashirastra is invoked twice, then it can even lead to draining of the entire ocean on Earth.

Skill as a warrior

In Udyoga Parva of Mahabarath, Bhishma declared Ashwatthama as a mighty Maharathi, or a warrior capable of fighting 60,000 warriors simultaneously; circumspect in his mastery of all forms of weapons and combat skills.

In Drona Parva of Mahabarath, it gives a detailed explanation of the skill of Drona's son Aswatthaman.


  1. ^ K M Ganguly(1883-1896). The Mahabharata,Book 5 Udyoga Parva,Section CLXVIII,October 2003,Retrieved 2014-02-11
  2. ^ K M Ganguly(1883-1896). The Mahabharata,Book 13 Anusasana Parva,SECTION CL,October 2003,Retrieved 2014-02-11
  3. ^ K M Ganguly(1883-1896)The Mahabharata,Book 8 Karna Parva,SECTION 20,October 2003,Retrieved 2014-02-11
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ K M Ganguly(1883-1896). The Mahabharata,Book 5 Udyoga Parva,Section CLXVIII,October 2003,Retrieved 2013-11-14
  8. ^ J.L Shastri. "The Siva Purana - The Complete Set in 4 Volumes".Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd; 2008 Edition
  9. ^ Smith, John. "The Mahābhārata : an abridged translation". Penguin Books, 2009, p. 565
  10. ^ Smith, John. "The Mahābhārata: an abridged translation". Penguin Books, 2009, p. 565
  11. ^ K M Ganguly(1883-1896). The Mahabharata,Book 10: Sauptika Parva Section 16,October 2003,Retrieved 2014-07-04
  12. ^ Kumara Vyasa Kumara Vyasa Mahabratha, August 2014, Retrieved 2014-08-01

External links

Original text online (Sanskrit)
  • etext (metrical), entered by Muneo Tokunaga
  • GRETIL etext (Muneo Tokunaga)
  • Mahābhārata online
  • History: Encounters with Ashwatthama
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