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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. He is one of the seven Chiranjivis. 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]


According to The Mahabharata, Aswatthaman means "the horse-voiced".[4][5][6] It is so called because when he was born he cried like a horse[7]

Drona's love for Ashwatthama[edit]

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.[8]

Ashwatthama's role in the Kurukshetra war[edit]

Ashwatthama use 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 11th 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[edit]

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. 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]

The Pandavas and Krishna who were away during night, now returned to their camp the next day morning. Incensed over this cowardly 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, although he was strictly forbidden to do so by his father Dronacharya for any purpose whatsoever. 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 spite, 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. Krishna used his sudarshana chakra to stop the Brahmashirastra and save Uttara's unborn child.

Ashwatthama's Prarabdh[edit]

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.[11] He will have neither any hospitality nor any accommodation; He will be in total isolation from mankind and society; His body will suffer from a host of incurable diseases forming sores and ulcers that would never heal for 3000 years".[12] 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 and demons. So, Ashwatthama was asked to surrender this gem. Lord Sri Krishna further states that "the wound caused by the removal of this gem on his forehead will never heal and will suffer from leprosy. It is believed that in Kaliyuga, his name will be "Suryakanta". Thus, Ashwatthama will be in search of death every moment, and yet he will never die. He has been wandering the Earth looking for his mani and ultimately liberation from his curse, or death. At the end of Kali Yuga, Ashwatthama is to meet Sri Kalki, the tenth and final avatar of Lord Vishnu.[13]

Krishna revives Abhimanyu's son[edit]

Krishna revives Abhimanyu's son

Uttara delivered a child which was dead. Beseeched by Draupadi, Arjuna, and Sudeshna, 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[edit]

Ashwatthama and Brahmashirastra

Ashwatthama seeks the knowledge of Brahmashir from his father Dronacharya.

The partial knowledge of Abhimanyu and Ashwatthama[edit]

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 Brahmastra. 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 Brahmastra (to invoke and withdraw it).

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

Skill as a warrior[edit]

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.

The mighty bowman (Aswatthaman) who is Drona's son surpasseth all bowmen. Acquainted with all modes of warfare, and of unbaffled weapons, he is a Maharatha. Like the wielder of Gandiva(Arjuna), the shafts of this warrior, shot from his bow, proceed in a continuous line, touching one another. If he wishes it, this Maharatha is capable of consuming the three worlds. Engaged in austerities in his hermitage, he has, by these, increased both his fury and energy. Possessed of great intelligence, he has been favored by Drona with (the gift of all) celestial weapons...Possessed of a strong frame, he can split the very mountains by the flaps of his bow-string, striking against the leathern fence on his left arm. Endued with innumerable qualities, this smiter of fierce effulgence will wander (over the field of battle), incapable of being withstood like Yama(the lord of death) himself, mace in hand. Resembling the fire at the end of the Yuga as regards his fury, possessed of leonine neck, and endued with great lustre, Aswatthaman will extinguish the embers of this battle between the Bharata's.

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

Obtaining all the secrets regarding celestial weapons with every detail, the son of Saradwat's daughter has become a second Drona, and a great hero. Aswatthaman is equal to Karna in knowledge of weapons, to Purandara in battle, to Kartavirya in energy, and Vrihaspati in wisdom. In fortitude, that youth is equal to a mountain, and in energy to fire. In gravity, he is equal to an ocean, and in wrath, to the poison of the snake. He is the foremost of all car-warriors in battle, a firm bowman, and above all fatigue. In speed he is equal to the wind itself and he careens in the thick of fight like Yama in rage. While his engaged in shooting arrows in battle, the very earth becomes afflicted. Of prowess incapable of being baffled, hero is never fatigued by exertions. Purified by the Vedas and by vows, he is a thorough master of the science of arms, like Rama, the son of Dasharatha. He is like the ocean,incapable of being agitated.


  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
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  8. ^ K M Ganguly(1883-1896). The Mahabharata,Book 5 Udyoga Parva,Section CLXVIII,October 2003,Retrieved 2013-11-14
  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 2014-03-29
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External links[edit]

Original text online (Sanskrit)