Categories: Hindu Scripture

Ashwatthama:The Complex Character of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, is a treasure trove of intriguing characters and gripping narratives. Among these characters, Ashwatthama, the son of Dronacharya, stands out as a figure both enigmatic and tragic. In this article, we delve into the life and journey of Ashwatthama, from his extraordinary birth to his role in the Kurukshetra war, exploring the complexities of his character and the consequences of his actions.


The Extraordinary Birth of Ashwatthama

Ashwatthama’s life began with an event that set him apart from others – his extraordinary birth. Born to Dronacharya and Kripi after years of penance, his arrival in the world was marked by a peculiar sound. Instead of crying like most infants, Ashwatthama entered the world neighing like a horse. This unique and ear-piercing noise reverberated across the world, leading to his name, Ashwatthama, which translates to ‘the sacred voice related to that of a horse.’ The celestial announcement of his birth proclaimed him as blessed by Lord Shiva.

Adding to his mystique, Ashwatthama had a ‘Mani’ or gem on his forehead, which was believed to protect him from malevolent forces. This auspicious beginning hinted at a destiny that would be both extraordinary and tumultuous.

Training with the Pandavas

Ashwatthama’s early years were modest until fate intervened when Dronacharya was tasked with teaching the Pandavas and Kauravas the art of warfare. It was here that Ashwatthama’s path took a significant turn. He trained alongside the princes and exhibited proficiency in battle, particularly with the bow and arrow. However, his prowess was overshadowed by the unparalleled skills of Arjuna, whom Dronacharya had promised to make the greatest archer in the world. As part of this promise, Arjuna was bestowed with the knowledge of wielding the Brahmastra, a weapon of immense destructive power.

What remained hidden from others was that Arjuna was not the sole recipient of this knowledge. Driven by paternal affection, Dronacharya also imparted the secrets of the Brahmastra to Ashwatthama, despite being aware of his impetuous nature. Though Dronacharya had cautioned Ashwatthama about the grave responsibility of wielding such a weapon, the young warrior’s ego swelled even further. This ego-driven ambition was exacerbated when he was crowned as the King of Southern Panchala, fueling his sense of entitlement and pride.

The Kurukshetra War

The Kurukshetra War, a central event in the Mahabharata, saw Ashwatthama taking a pivotal role due to his father’s position and his close friendship with Duryodhana, the leader of the Kauravas. On the tenth day of the war, following the death of Bhishma, Dronacharya assumed the role of supreme commander for the Kaurava forces. He pledged to capture Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, but his efforts proved futile.

Dronacharya’s invincibility when armed necessitated a clever stratagem by Lord Krishna and the Pandavas. It was decided that Bhima would kill an elephant named Ashwatthama and then falsely inform Dronacharya that it was his son, Ashwatthama, who had perished. This ruse played on Dronacharya’s deep emotional attachment to his son, and it succeeded. Grief-stricken and disheartened by the news, Dronacharya was subsequently defeated and killed in battle by Dhrishtadyumna, the son of King Drupada.

The Tragic Wrath of Ashwatthama

The revelation of the Pandavas’ deception and the death of his father unleashed a devastating fury within Ashwatthama. Consumed by anger and vengeance, he invoked the celestial weapon known as Narayanastra, disregarding warnings that it should only be used in dire circumstances. The consequences of this reckless act were catastrophic.

The Narayanastra caused the skies to darken, and a chilling howl filled the air. In the heavens, an arrow representing each Pandava soldier materialized, poised to annihilate the entire army. Fortunately, Lord Krishna possessed knowledge of the weapon’s nature and instructed all soldiers to cast aside their weapons. The Narayanastra could only target armed combatants, and thus, it passed harmlessly overhead. This timely intervention by Krishna spared the Pandavas from certain defeat, as the Narayanastra could only be. Nunleashed once.

Ashwatthama’s Ruthlessness

As the Kurukshetra War reached its climax, with Duryodhana near death and the Pandavas on the cusp of victory, Ashwatthama resolved to go down fighting, determined to inflict maximum pain upon his enemies. Alongside the last surviving warriors on the Kaurava side, Kripa and Kritavarma, Ashwatthama hatched a plan to launch a night-time assault.

In a merciless onslaught, Ashwatthama unleashed his fury, slaying numerous warriors, including Dhrishtadyumna. Tragically, in a horrific case of mistaken identity, he murdered all of Draupadi’s sons, believing them to be the Pandavas themselves. This act of brutality showcased the depths of Ashwatthama’s rage and the tragic consequences of his uncontrolled emotions.


Krishna Das is an experienced article writer. He writes about Hinduism in his spare time.

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