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A hero 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 fought on the Kaurava side against the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war.
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 was very hungry. His mother did not even own a cow to give him milk. She mixed some wheat flour with water that looked like milk and fed him. On seeing this, Dronacharya was very sad. He remembered his childhood friend Drupada. Dronacharya went to the court of Drupada to ask for a cow. King Drupada humiliated Drona, saying that Drona was no longer a friend of his as Drupada believed that friendship existed only between equals. Dronacharya returned empty-handed and humiliated. He planned to take revenge on Drupada.
After this incident, on seeing the plight of Dronacharya, Kripacharya, who was teaching the Kuru princes, offered a teacher's position to Dronacharya. Thus, Dronacharya became the guru of the Pandavas and of the Kauravas in Hastinapur. Ashwatthama was also trained in the art of warfare along with the Pandavas and Kauravas in Hastinapur.
Ashwatthama's role in the Kurukshetra war 
Since Hastinapur, ruled by King Dhrishtrastra, 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. After the death of Dushaasana, Ashwatthama even suggested to Duryodhana to make peace with the Pandavas, keeping in mind the welfare of Hastinapur, but Duryodhana strongly rejected his suggestion. Ashwatthama's hatred towards the Pandavas increased after Duryodhana's defeat to Bhima during the Gadayuddha.
Ashwatthama meets Duryodhana 
On the night after Duryodhana was mortally wounded by Bhima during the Gadayuddha, Ashwatthama, along with Kripacharya and Kritavarma visited the spot where the dying Duryodhana was lying. Ashwatthama told Duryodhana that he will never forgive the Pandavas for leading Duryodhana to this situation and also for his father's (Dronacharya) dishonourable death. He swore to kill the Pandavas by any possible means. Duryodhana made Ashwatthama the General of the Kaurava forces.
Ashwatthama's attack on 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 caught his attention. He observed that an owl was being attacked and harassed by crows in the morning. This owl attacked the same group of crows at night. This gave him an idea of attacking the Pandava camp at midnight. He gathered the only other surviving Kaurava warriors—Kritavarma and Kripacharya and attacked the Pandava camp on the 18th night of the Kurukshetra war. He killed Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi and many other prominent warriors of Pandava army while they were sleeping. Those who tried to flee from Ashwatthama's wrath, were hacked down by Kripacharyya and Kritavarma who were positioned 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.
After destroying the entire Pandava camp, Ashwatthama carried the five heads of Draupadi's sons and proceeded towards Duryodana claiming that he had beheaded the Pandavas. Then, Duryodana told him to give him the head of Bhima. Ashwatthama gave the head of Draupadi's son thinking that it to be Bhima's head. Duryodana held it in his palm and tried to crush the head into pieces. Since, the head facing Duryodana does not turn on the other side, then Duryodana declared that Ashwatthama has not killed Bhima and other Pandava brothers. This was because the magnitude of the sibling rivalry between Duryodana and Bhima is to such a height, that even after beheading Bhima, Bhima's head will never see Duryodana's face. This makes Duryodhana sad, as Draupadi's sons are the last Kuru princes to rule Hastinapura. Then Duryodhana dies. Ashwatthama, realising his mistake, went to Sage Vedavyasa's ashram in order to seek salvation (prayaschittam) for his crime.
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 Dhristarashtra 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." 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."
Pandavas chase for Ashwatthama 
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 
Bhishma strove hard throughout his life to protect Hastinapur in his quest of finding the legal heir of Sathyavati's clan. Bhishma entrusted on Krishna this responsibility of finding the next heir of Sathyavati's family and to continue the lineage of the Pandavas. Although, after Duryodhana's defeat it appeared that Hastinapur was now safe, as it was clear that Yudhishthira was the next king of Hastinapur, Ashwatthama's action brought an end to the Pandava line.
Lord Krishna then placed a curse on Ashwatthama(actually it was his Prarabdha karma) that "he will carry the burden of all people's sins on his shoulders and will roam alone like a ghost without getting any love and courtesy till the end of Kaliyuga; 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". 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, till the end of Kaliyuga". 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. At the end of Kali Yuga, Ashwatthama is to meet Sri Kalki, the tenth and final avatar of Lord Vishnu.
Krishna revives Abhimanyu's son 
Uttara delivered a child which was dead. All the women approached lord Krishna to bring the baby back to life who was the only successor of the Pandava dynasty. 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. Later, Abhimanyu's son becomes an ardent devotee of lord Krishna and was named Parikshit (the one who has been tested, when he was in his mother's womb; Lord Krishna rescued him in the womb). The Pandavas ruled for 36 years. After the end of Pandavas, Parikshit ruled Hastinapur for 27 years and was succeeded by Janamejaya.
Ashwatthama and Brahmashirastra 
Ashwatthama seeks the knowledge of Brahmashirastra from his father Dronacharya.
The partial knowledge of Abhimanyu and Ashwatthama 
Abhimanyu is often quoted as an example for his partial knowledge about Chakravyha. 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 Brahmshirastra. 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 Padmavyooha (to break and exit from it) and Brahmashirastra (to invoke and withdraw it).
In case of Ashwatthama, Dronacharya teaches Ashwatthama only to invoke Brahmashirastra, 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 Brahmashirastra multiple times, Dronacharya only gives a partial knowledge about it. If an archer invokes Brahmashirastra once, it not only destroys the target, but also leads to a famine in the region for 12 years. If a Brahmashirastra is invoked twice, then it can even lead to draining of the entire ocean on Earth.
- Smith, John. "The Mahābhārata : an abridged translation". Penguin Books, 2009, p. 565
- Smith, John. "The Mahābhārata: an abridged translation". Penguin Books, 2009, p. 565
- Mahabharata - Book 10 - Sauptika Parva Chapter 16 Translated into English Prose from the Original Sanskrit Text by Kisari Mohan Ganguli [1883-1896]
- Original text online (Sanskrit)