Aswatthama is perhaps the most tragic of all war heroes of Mahabharata, the lone survivor of the horrendous war of Kurukshethra who is still believed to be roaming the earth in perpetual torment because of an unjustifiably harsh curse from Sree Krishna. Among the warriors he was one of the best and the brightest. In physical prowess he was rather unmatched and in fighting he was indomitable. Apart from his mastery in archery, in which he was more than an equal to Arjuna, this part incarnation of Siva was endowed with a radiant gem embedded on his forehead that safeguarded him from all evil and harm.
In Bhishma’s words ‘This mighty bowman surpasses all bowmen.’ Bhishma was giving a comparative analysis of the fighting capabilities of the leading warriors on both sides at Kurukshethra. ‘Like the wielder of Gandiva, the shafts of this warrior proceed in a continuous line, touching one another. If he wishes this Maharathi is capable of consuming the three worlds.’
Who is a Maharathi? In the gradation of fighting prowess described in the scriptures a Maharathi is two rungs above a Rathi and lower only to Atirathi and Mahamaharathi. A Rathi is a charioteer who is capable of fighting, and vanquishing, 5,000 warriors simultaneously. The ability to inflict destruction goes up on the scale, with Ekarathi capable of fighting eight Rathi class warriors at a time and Atirathi who can fight 12 Rathi class warriors simultaneously. Then comes Maharathi, a fighter who can deal with 12 Atirathi class warriors, or in other words a total of 720,000 warriors, simultaneously.
The Maharathis in combat at Kurukshetra included, besides Aswatthama, Arjuna, Karna, Abhimanyu and Karna’s son Vrishasena. There was no Atimaharathi, one capable of dealing with twelve Maharathi class warriors, mentioned in Mahabharata. Nor was there any Mahamaharathi, the ultimate in fighting prowess, with a capability to fight 24 Atimaharathi class warriors at a time. Only Vishnu, Siva, Brahma and Shakthi were said to be in this class. The lone mortal who could ever rise to this level, according to Mahabharata, was Aswatthama. But he could unleash such awesome destructive potential only if he was extremely angry and agitated. Something akin to ‘the wrath of Achilles’ in Greek mythology.
Son of Guru Drona and Kripi, sister of Kripacharya, and grandson of Sage Bharadwaj, Aswatthama had not only great physical prowess but supreme intelligence as well. He was described as very tall, well-built, handsome, dark skinned and, according to Bhishma, acquainted with all modes of warfare. ‘Among the warriors on both armies, there is no one who can be regarded as his peer.’
‘Endued with innumerable qualities,’ Bhishma said, ‘this smiter of fierce effulgence will wander over the field of battle, incapable of being withstood, like Yama 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, Aswatthama will extinguish the embers of this battle between the Bharatas.’
Aswatthama in fact was against the war and had pleaded with his friend Duryodhana to come to terms with the Pandavas. But once the die was cast he stood by Duryodhana, that too in fierce loyalty.
He could never forgive the Pandavas for the way in which his father Drona was fraudulently killed when he was unarmed and in prayers after he was falsely made to believe that his son had been slain. He was equally agitated about the killing of Duryodhana through employment of yet another deception suggested by Sree Krishna.
Having heard of Duryodhana's fall, Aswatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma, the only unslain remnant of the Kaurava army, ‘exceedingly wounded with keen shafts and maces and lances and darts,’ came to his side. They were stupefied to see the mighty monarch writhing in pain on the bare ground, covered with blood. ‘Beholding the king in tears and grief, Drona's son flamed up in anger like the fire that is seen at the universal destruction.’
And squeezing Duryodhana’s hand Aswatthama made a solemn vow to exterminate the Pandavas. ‘O king! Listen to these words of mine that I utter, swearing by Truth itself, O lord, and by all my acts of piety, all my gifts, my religion, and the religious merits I have won. I shall today, in the very presence of Vasudeva, despatch all the Panchalas, by all means in my power, to the abode of Yama.’
Hearing these words, strong, determined and full of conviction, Duryodhana asked Kripa to fetch him some water which he sprinkled on Aswatthama and proclaimed him as the Commander of the Kuru army, though now reduced to three men from the 11 akshauhini force that came to fight for him at Kurukshethra.
Mahabharata gives a vivid description of the way in which this three-men army vanquished, and annihilated, an entire army of the Pandavas. The idea of attacking the Pandava camp at night came to Aswatthama after he saw a night owl killing many crows perched on a banyan tree.
Aswatthama knew that attacking the enemy after sunfall was unfair, but had not the Pandavas resorted to grossly unfair means to fell Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Duryodhana and many other stalwarts of the Kuru army? In each of these cases Sree Krishna had justified the employment of deception to win in an unequal fight.
(Watching the mace duel between Bhima and Duryodhana, ‘Vasudeva said: ‘The instruction received by them has been equal. Bhima, however, is possessed of greater might, while the son of Dhritarashtra is possessed of greater skill and has laboured more. If he were to fight fairly, Bhimasena will never succeed in winning the victory. If, however, he fights unfairly he will be surely able to slay Duryodhana. The asuras were vanquished by the gods with the aid of deception. We have heard this. Virochana was vanquished by Shakra with the aid of deception. The slayer of Vala deprived Vritra of his energy by an act of deception. Therefore, let Bhimasena put forth his prowess, aided by deception.’- Shalya Parva, Sec 68).
Aswatthama in anger was like Yama himself. In the Pandava camp he first searched out his father’s killer, Drishtadyumna, waking him up from sleep and proceeding to beat him to death. Ignoring Drishtadyumna’s pleas to be killed with a weapon, he told him ‘O wretch of thy race, there is no region for those that slay their preceptors. For this you do not deserve to be slain with any weapon!’
What followed was simply carnage. As described in Mahabharata, Aswatthama was ‘careering like the Destroyer himself let loose by Time.’ Single-handedly he fought and killed Drishtadyumna, Shikhandi who was the cause of Bhishma’s downfall, all the sons of the Pandavas, who were all great car-warriors, and thousands of other warriors of the Pandava army.
How could he accomplish such an unbelievable feat? When Yudhishtira later asked the question, Sree Krishna, who was aware that Aswatthama was a part incarnation of Siva, gave his explanation: ‘Possessed of great energy, the god Mahadeva was gratified with Aswatthama. It was for this that your sons, those mighty car-warriors, could be slain by that warrior. It was for this that many other heroes, the Panchalas, with all their followers, could be slain by him. It was not Drona's son that accomplished that act. It was done through the grace of Mahadeva.’
Having said so, the question remains how Sree Krishna could curse Aswatthama for this and other offences after depriving him of his life saving gem on the forehead, the last mentioned at the behest of Draupadi.
‘I have heard,’ Draupadi had told Yudhishtira in the presence of Sree Krishna, ‘ that Drona's son has a gem on his head, born with him. I shall see that gem brought to me after the slaughter of that wretch in battle. Placing that gem on thy head, O king, I shall endure to live. This is my resolve.’
It was when the Pandavas were in pursuit of Aswatthama in pursuance of Draupadi’s instruction that the final showdown with him took place on the banks of the Ganga. The Pandavas found him sitting by the side of Vyasa who, along with other rishis, was performing poojas. Seeing the vengeful Bhima and other Pandavas fast approaching him, Aswatthama knew the time had come for him to use the ultimate weapon in his arsenal, the Brahmashiras. He took a blade of grass, invoked certain mantras, and sent it as a devastating celestial weapon, muttering the words: ‘For the destruction of the Pandavas.’
When Sree Krishna asked Arjuna too to invoke the same mantras to send a counter Brahmashiras, the world was on the brink of a disastrous conflagration. Sages Narada and Vyasa soon intervened, standing between the two scorching weapons, and asked both the rivals to withdraw them to save the world. While Arjuna could do so Aswatthama could only deflect it to an object, which he chose to be the foetus in the womb of Abhimanyu’s wife Uttara, which he felt was in keeping with his vow to end the Pandava line.
Aswatthama was in a way accepting a challenge thrown by Sree Krishna. Sree Krishna had told him about a pious Brahmin making a prediction that while the Kuru line would become extinct, a child, called by the name Parikshit, would be born to Uttara. The brahmin’s words, Sree Krishna said, would come true.
In angry retaliation Aswatthama said: ‘This, O Keshava, that you say from your partiality for the Pandavas, shall not happen. O you of eyes like lotus-petals, my words cannot but be fulfilled. Uplifted by me, this weapon of mine shall fall on the foetus that is in the womb of Virata's daughter, upon that foetus which you, O Krishna, are desirous of protecting.'
Strange as it may seem, Aswatthama’s action got a nod from Vyasa, perhaps as the lesser of the two evils. In reply to Vyasa’s instruction to him to withdraw the weapon, as Arjuna had done, Aswatthama told him: ‘This blade of grass (inspired into a fatal weapon) will, however, fall into the wombs of the Pandava women, for this weapon is high and mighty, and incapable of being frustrated. O regenerate one, I am unable to withdraw it, having once let it off. I will now throw this weapon into the wombs of the Pandava women. As regards your commands in other respects, O holy one, I shall certainly obey them.
‘Vyasa said, ‘Do then this. Do not, however, entertain any other purpose, O sinless one! Throwing this weapon into the wombs of the Pandava women, stop yourself.’
‘Vaishampayana continued, ‘The son of Drona, having heard these words of the island-born, threw that uplifted weapon into the wombs of the Pandava women.’
It was this action that got him the severest ever curse uttered on anyone by anyone: ‘For this reason,’ Sree Krishna told him, knowing fully well that he was part incarnation of Siva, ‘you must have to bear the fruit of these your sins. For three thousand years you shall wander over this earth, without a companion and without being able to talk with anyone. Alone and without anybody by thy side, you shall wander through diverse countries, O wretch, you shall have no place in the midst of men. The stench of pus and blood shall emanate from you, and inaccessible forests and dreary moors shall be your abode! You shall wander over the Earth, O you of sinful soul, with the weight of all diseases on you.’
It is here that one wonders how Aswatthama, so severely and outrightly, and perhaps so unjustifiably, cursed by Sree Krishna, could find a haven and an abode in one of the 108 most sacred Vishnu Temples in the land, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram. Here he is not shunned, as Sree Krishna proclaimed, but venerated in the form of a panchaloha idol standing on the right hand side of an idol of Sage Vyasa in a shrine close to the main deity.
His association with Vyasa in this shrine is perhaps a throwback to his last scene in Mahabharata where a gloomy Aswatthama proceeded to the forests after removing the life protecting gem from his forehead and handing it over to Vyasa to be given to the Pandavas as demanded by them. His parting words to Vyasa, according to Mahabharata, were : "With yourself among all men, O holy one, I shall live."
A popular local legend associated with Aswatthama also disregards the curse by Sree Krishna. The legend has it that two men who had no claim to scholarship became overnight poetic geniuses who composed Ramakatha Pattu and Mahabharata Pattu because of blessings from Aswatthama. These two men, who worked as watchmen of some paddy lands belonging to the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple about six centuries ago, are popularly known as ‘Kovalam Poets.’ Their story, as detailed in the book ‘Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple’ by Aswati Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore Royal Family, goes something like this. One day the elder brother, Ayyippillai Asan, was returning home after having his usual morning darshan of Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple. On the way he met a tall, well- built man of divine radiance who benignly handed him a plantain, saying it was from the temple. The man then walked over the Thiruvallam river and disappeared. Ayyippillai ate the plantain and threw the skin away. Coming back to his house, he woke up his brother, Ayyanpillai Asan, and immediately started singing what later turned out to be the Ramakatha Pattu. Wonderstruck by this, his brother asked him what really had happened. Ayyippillai told him of his encounter with the heavenly person, who, he was sure, was Aswatthama, and the change that came over him after eating that plantain. Ayyanpillai soon ran towards the spot where his brother had thrown away the skin of the fruit. He found it and ate it and in turn he too was infused with poesy, helping him to compose Mahabharata Pattu. Aswathy Thirunal said Ramakatha Pattu used to be sung at the festivals of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple.
The question now is how a person cursed by Sree Krishna to everlasting damnation could find such a coveted, venerated abode in one of the most sacred Vishnu temples in the land. Does it mean that Lord Vishnu does not approve of the appalling curse by his avatar on earth?
(Notes: 1.All Mahabharata quotes from Shalya and Sauptika Parvas. Mahabharata- Kisari Mohan Ganguli Translation. 2. Reference to Kovalam Poets from Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple by Aswathi Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2000)