Ashwatthama: The Son of Drona

- November 12, 2021


By Dheer Sanghi

Although not a central character in the Mahabharata, the story of Ashwatthama, Drona’s son, is a compelling one. Having access to powerful weapons and nearly being responsible for the deaths of millions, Ashwatthama was a warrior lacking maturity and forethought, with an inflated ego and an extremely hot head. 

Early Years

Born to Dronacharya and Kripi after many years of penance for a child, his birth was extraordinary. He came into the world neighing like a horse instead of crying. This ear-piercing noise was heard across the world, resulting in him being named Ashwatthama: ‘the sacred voice which relates to that of a horse.’ Accompanying his birth was a celestial voice proclaiming that Ashwatthama was blessed by Lord Shiva. Certainly blessed, the boy inexplicably had a ‘Mani’ (gem) on his forehead that protected him from evil spirits. 

Training with the Pandavas

Ashwatthama grew up poor until Drona was asked to teach the Pandavas and Kauravas the art of warfare. Ashwatthama learned alongside the princes and gained proficiency in battle. He had skill with the bow and arrow but was outshined by Arjun, whom Drona promised to make the greatest archer in the world. Arjun, as part of this promise, was given the knowledge of using the Brahmastra, a weapon strong enough to destroy the world. 

Unknown to others at the time, the Brahmastra wasn’t only given to Arjun. Overcome by affection for his son, Drona also imparted the knowledge to Ashwatthama, even after knowing of his impetuosity. Although Drona gave clear warnings to Ashwatthama, his ego only grew after this event, even trying, in vain, to get Krishna’s Sudarshan Chakra. His egotistical behaviour was not helped by the fact that he was crowned King of Southern Panchala.

The Kurukshetra War

Due to the position of his father, as well as his strong bond and friendship with Duryodhana, Ashwatthama was loyal to Hastinapur and fought on the side of the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. On the tenth day of the war, Drona was made the supreme commander after Bhishma’s death. He promised to capture Yuddhisthira, to no avail. Nevertheless, Drona was too powerful to kill when armed so Krishna and the Pandavas devised a scheme to make him vulnerable. It was decided that Bheema would kill an elephant by the name Ashwatthama and then inform Drona that it was his son, Ashwatthama, who had died. The plan was successful and the grief-stricken Drona was soon killed in battle by Dhrishtadyumna, son of King Drupada.

Illustration: Dilip Kadam

The news of the Pandavas’ trickery and his father’s death angered Ashwatthama to the point where he invoked the celestial weapon Narayanastra even after warnings to only use it in dire circumstances. The clouds turned grey, and a howling sound filled the air. In the sky, one arrow for each Pandava soldier appeared, ready to strike down the whole army. Luckily, Krishna knew how the weapon worked and told all soldiers to drop all their arms as the Narayanastra only killed armed soldiers. The Astra passed by harmlessly. Since the weapon could only be fired once, the Pandavas were saved from defeat.

End of the War

Much later in the war, with Duryodhana on the brink of death and the Pandavas on the brink of victory, Ashwatthama planned to go down fighting trying to inflict as much pain on the Pandavas as possible. Along with the last three survivors on the Kaurava side (Kripa and Kritavarma), Ashwatthama planned to attack during the dead of night. Mercilessly killing many, including Dhristadyumna, Ashwatthama destroyed many notable warriors of the Pandava army. He also killed all of Draupadi’s sons, mistaking them for the Pandavas. 

Illustration: Dilip Kadam
Ashwatthama’s Fate

When the Pandavas saw the havoc wrecked in the morning, they were enraged and inconsolable. After finding out who was responsible, they tracked Ashwatthama and found him at sage Vyasa’s ashram. A battle ensued, ending with Ashwatthama trying to kill a pregnant Uttara, Arjun’s daughter-in-law, in order to end the Pandava lineage. Before any damage could be done, however, Krishna rushed to Ashwatthama and cursed him to an immortal life of endless misery as a leper with no means of escape.

According to some legends, Ashwatthama is still alive, in great pain, and suffering for committing the grave sin of attempting to kill an unborn baby. An egotistical, hotheaded, but skilled warrior, the story of Ashwatthama is a fascinating and tragic one.

Read the complete Mahabharata story in our Mahabharata collection, now available on the ACK Comics App, Kindle, Flipkart, Amazon and other major e-tailers. 

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