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Once upon a time Bharadvaja Rishi, while taking bath in the Ganges, happened to meet Ghrtaci, one of the beautiful society girls of heaven, and thus he discharged semen, which was kept and preserved in an earthen pot and from which Drona was born.
Later, as per the instructions of his father, Drona married Krpi, daughter of the sage, Saradvata and sister of Kripa.
The good-natured Krpi gave birth to Asvatthama.
(Maha-bharata, Adi Parva, 130)
Drona did severe austerities to obtain a son equal to Siva. Mahadeva himself granted that boon and therefore Asvatthama is said to be a partial incarnation of Lord Siva. Asvatthama can die only when Siva decides so.
How he got his name.
The moment he was born he made a loud hoot like Uccaisravas and the sound resembled the braying of a horse. Immediately a voice from heaven said that the boy should be named Asvatthama. The boy was, therefore, named so.
(Maha-bharata, Adi Parva, 130.48-49).
Training in archery.
Asvatthama took his lesson in archery from his father Drona. At that time Drona got new lessons from Parasurama and they were also imparted to Drona’s disciples. When Drona became the preceptor of the Kauravas and Pandavas, Asvatthama also went with him.
(Maha-bharata, Adi Parva, 130.52 up to 64)
Drona’s affection for his son.
Drona was very affectionate to his son and wanted to teach him something special in archery. So he used to instruct him during the time the other disciples went to fetch water for the asrama. Arjuna came to know of this and he, thereafter, started bringing his quota of water quickly enough to join the special class of Drona. Thus Arjuna and Asvatthama learned a lot more than the others in the military art.
(Maha-bharata, Adi Parva, 132)
The Mahabharata Battle and Asvatthama.
In Sabha Parva we find Asvatthama participating in the Rajasuya of Yudhisthira. After that we meet him only at the Kuruksetra war. Fighting on the side of the Kauravas he played a very important role in that war. He killed many veteran warriors and kings including the following: Nela, Anjanaparva, Suratha, Satrunjaya, Balanika, Jayanika, Jayasva, Sruta’sva, Hemamali, Vrsadhara, Candrasena, the ten sons of Kuntibhoja, Sudarsana, Vrddhaksetra, Cediraja, Malayadhvaja and Suratha. He defeated many including Sikhandi, Abhimanyu, Virata, Satyaki and Vindhya.
By using Agneyastra (the arrow of fire) he made Krsna and Arjuna fall fainting in the battle-field. He commanded the Kaurava army once. He killed many Pancalas and Somakas while they were sleeping.
In Chapter 139 of Drona Parva we read about Arjuna defeating Asvatthama in a single combat one day.
Asvatthama sees a ghost.
Dhrstadyumna, son of King Paricala, killed Drona. When Asvatthama heard of his father’s death his rage knew no bound. He immediately went to the heart of the military camp of the Pandavas, Krpa and Satvata following him. There at the gate of the camp he beheld a ghostly apparition. It is described in the Bhasa Bharata (Malayalam version of M.B. ) as follows: He saw a huge figure standing at the door with a body blazing like the Sun and the Moon. Bathed in blood and wearing a tiger’s skin in the loins the figure wore a snake as his sacred thread and covered his upper body with a deer-skin. There were innumerable hands for this ghost and in each hand adorned with snake-bangles he held a deadly weapon. With crooked teeth and a ghastly face the goblin gave a shiver to those who saw him. Flames bursting forth from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth he barred the way of Asvatthama.
Undaunted the son of Drona showered divine arrows on the figure. But the ghost by his supreme powers absorbed the arrows to his body the moment they touched him. In despair Asvatthama meditated on Siva and the latter appearing before him in person gave him a divine dagger. With that he entered the bed-chamber of Dhrstadyumna, woke him up by striking him with his foot, caught hold of him by the hair on his head and killed him.
Asvatthama and his jewel.
The anger of Asvathama did not abate even after killing Dhrstadyumna, the killer of his father.
With a view to destroying the whole Pandava dynasty he sent against the Pandavas the all-powerful Brahmasirastra. But Drona had given the same type of missile to Arjuna also and so he sent forth his to meet the other. It created such a great explosion that all the elders on both the sides joined together and requested them to withdraw the missiles. Arjuna demanded the jewel on Asvatthama’s head to withdraw his missile. But Asvatthama refused to, part with it. He said, “This jewel of mine is more valuable than all the wealth of both Pandavas and Kauravas put together. If you wear this you need not be afraid of your enemies, disease, hunger and thirst. No harm will come to you from Yaksas, Nagas or thieves. I will never part with such a jewel”.
(Maha-bharata, Sauptika Parva, 15.28-29-30)
After great persuasion Asvatthama surrendered his jewel but without withdrawing the missile directed it towards the womb of Uttara who was bearing a child then. We are reminded of an incident which happened when the Pandavas were residing in Upaplavya; a poor brahmin looking at Uttara said,
“When the Kauravas will be weakening in power a child will be born to you. The boy will have to bear a test even while in the womb and so you must name the child Pariksit (One who has been tested)”.
When the powerful missile was flying straight towards Uttara’s womb Sri Krsna said,
“Even though the child in the womb will die of this arrow it will be reborn. Oh, Asvatthama, you will be denounced by all as a sinner for killing this unborn babe. To suffer for this evil deed you will roam about in the earth for three thousand years. Nobody will associate with you; you will be shunned by society. You will be tormented by all diseases on earth. But the babe which you have now killed will be a famous scholar and brave King. He will rule this country for sixty years. He will be known as the next Kururaja. Look, I am giving life to the child you have killed”.
Vyasa supported Krsna, and Asvatthama repenting on his hasty action gave the jewel to the Pandavas and left for the forest with Vyasa.
(Maha-bharata, Sautika Parva).
Synonyms of Asvatthama.
The Mahabharata has used the following names also for Asvatthama:
Acaryanandana, Acaryaputra, Acaryasuta, Acaryatanaya, Acaryasattama, Drauni, Draunayani, Dronaputra, Dronasunu, Guruputra, Gurusuta and Bharatacaryaputra.
Asvatthama will be one of the next Sapta Rishi
Asvatthama will be one of the Sapta Rishis of the next Manu, Savarni.