Aswasthama had to surrender his “crown”, which was not something ordinary; it was a part of his head, and it protected him from disease, hunger and thirst. When it was torn off his head, it not merely left a gaping, festering wound, but also destroyed a very powerful protective shield. He was reduced to an ordinary mortal. He had to undergo Krishna’s curse in this condition. This is in brief the last part of Aswathama’s story.
Aswasthama was granted the boon of immortality. He was condemned to undergo three thousand years of disgrace, humiliation, and pain, and the boon turned into a curse. Although, we, ordinary mortals would never know what three thousand years would mean to one whose existence spans eternity, we can well imagine what three thousand years of agony does to the sufferer. How much relief would one in pain get from the knowledge that one day the pain would come to an end, even though that day would take three thousand years to come?
In the eighteenth century Odia poet Krushna Singha’s version of Vyasa Mahabharata, all was not lost for Aswasthama. Krishna had put a limit to his terrible curse. This was what gave the condemned man hope. The curse had calmed him. Before he left on his three thousand year journey in wilderness, he prayed to sage Vyasa to allow him to return to his ashram on the completion of those years.
Sarala’s story is different. Aswasthama was a great warrior, and was one of the greatest archers of his times and like Bhishma, Drona, Arjuna and Karna he had divine weapons in his armoury too. But Duryodhana did not think highly of him, and made no secret of his opinion of him either. For Duryodhana, one who sought immortality was afraid of death, and one who was afraid of death was a disgrace to the community of warriors. In his army was Bhishma, who would die only when he chose to die. He could not be killed. But Bhishma’s case was different from Aswasthama’s. Bhishma never sought this privilege. In Sarala Mahabharata, what his mother, Ganga, said when she left him moments after his birth turned out to have this effect, unintended by Ganga herself. Details are out of place here.
After his father’s decapitation in the battlefield, Aswasthama tried to destroy the Pandavas but did not succeed, on account of Krishna. Duryodhana refused to make him the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. But he had no motivation to fight in the war any more. He performed the last rites of his father, and resolved to go on pilgrimage. Lest he felt tempted to rejoin the war, he decided to give away his weapons to someone worthy. Informed of this by Sahadeva, Krishna in the guise of a wise brahmin received his weapons from him. When Sakuni told Aswasthama that Krishna had cheated him, he was not upset at all. By making a ritual gift to Krishna himself, he told Sakuni, he would acquire great religious merit. Besides, Krishna, in his Parashuram avatar had given him all those weapons and now took them away in a different incarnation – what was his, went back to him. Therefore, he told Sakuni, he had nothing to regret about.
Aswasthama entered the batlefield after he heard that Duryodhana was lying mortally wounded. He was terribly upset, and he requested Duryodhana again to make him his commander-in-chief to enable him to avenge his father’s killing. Duryodhana agreed. In the darkness of the night he went to the Pandava camp and killed Dhristadyumna, who had committed the mean act of killing his grief-stricken, unarmed father. He also killed the five sons of Draupadi during their sleep, mistaking them to be the Pandavas. Duryodhana rebuked him when he saw those heads the following morning, regretted having made him commander-in-chief, and dismissed him from his presence. Rejected for ever by his friend and his king, Aswasthama left in disgrace.
The Pandavas were in Dwarika when this happened. Draupadi was inconsolable. She wanted revenge. She asked Krishna to kill Aswasthama. Krishna did not kill Aswasthama but dispossessed him of his weapons. Ignoring details, he cheated Aswasthama again in the guise of a brahmin. He advised him to leave his weapons under water, and at night he stole them and brought them to Draupadi’s presence to pacify her. The following morning Aswasthama heard what had happened from his maternal uncle, Kripacharya, the family preceptor of the Kurus, who, like Aswasthama had survived the Kurukshetra war. This time Aswasthama’s reaction was very different. He lost his cool, and did what he should never have done.
It did not matter to him that he did not have any weapon. He uprooted a kainsika grass (a kind of grass that grows in water), made a bow and an arrow from it, and sanctified them with the enabling mantra, thereby transforming them into a proper bow and arrow. He invoked the mantra for brahmastra and shot the arrow instructing it to destroy the Pandavas, and Krishna, along with his seven generations too, in case he intervened on their behalf. Which is of course what Krishna did. In Dwaraka, the Pandavas, his guests, were under his protection. When all his efforts to counter brahmastra failed, he used narayana astra against it. The destructive power of these two weapons was so great that Brahma himself, who was the god of creation and also the creator of brahmastra, had to intervene without the knowledge of Aswasthama. Krishna must have known, because in Sarala Mahabharata there was nothing that he did not know. Brahma pacified the weapon of Vishnu, but his own weapon wanted a sacrifice – someone like a Pandava. So Brahma directed it to the womb of Uttara.
And with this, the narrative changed its direction. Aswasthama was simply pushed out of the centre stage to some quiet edge. He would not emerge from there for a long time. Now the focus was on the dead child, and Krishna was the supreme actor on the stage. He gave life to the child, and a touch of grandeur to the story of a kind that only he could. After the birth of her son Uttara died. The mother had done her job. She had given a son to continue the line of the Kurus and a successor to the throne of Hastinapura. The story did not need her anymore.
Then came the time when Krishna and his brother Balarama left the mortal world. Dhritarastra, Gandhari, and Kunti had retired to the forest, and had perished in a forest fire. Bidura had died. Yudhisthira experienced a deep sense of emptiness after the departure of Krishna, and he and his brothers soon decided it was time for them to go for vanaprastha. Yudhisthira handed over the kingdom to his grandson Parikshita and with Draupadi, the brothers left for the forest never to return.
In the last phase of their pilgrimage they went to the ashram of Parashuram in Prag tirtha (Prayag), where they met Aswasthama and Kripacharya. In just thirteen couplets of meditative grace the poet Sarala describes their meeting in that serene and sublime environment. These few verses provide one of the very few eloquent articulations of peace, calm and hope in this long narrative of intolerance, hatred, revenge, and destruction. The meeting of the Pandavas with Aswasthama was as elevating as blissful. This was no reconciliation; there was no place for it since all enmity and hostility of a lifetime had disappeared. They met as friends and well-wishers. Yudhisthira paid due respects to Aswasthama and Kripacharya, and in an expression of spiritual surrender, he prostrated before Parashuram – duti brahma (“second Brahma”) as Aswasthama described him to Yudhisthira. As Parashuram told them about the events of satya yuga (“the aeon of Truth”), Aswasthama spoke about the Mahabharata war and the glory and the greatness of the Pandavas. They all took their ritual bath in the sacred waters of the rivers, and had darshan of Bhagavan Madhava. Aswasthama most affectionately invited Yudhisthira to stay with them. They were on their way to the seat of goddess Hingula, he told Aswasthama, as the Pandavas resumed his journey. They would return to the ashram on their way back, and would join him, he told Aswasthama. They never came back; their path led them to the Himalayas.
This is how the immortal Aswasthama’s story ended in Sarala Mahabharata. It is through some kind of ending that the immortals can leave a story, and that, not merely because a story must have an end. Perhaps Aswasthama continued to stay in that ashram; perhaps he went elsewhere. In that deathless existence of his, what did he seek and what did he get? One does not know. Nobody ever told that story. There are no stories of immortals; only the mortals have stories.
In his retelling, Sarala saved Aswasthama from an utterly humiliating and miserable existence for three thousand years and his audience from yet another degrading experience: of confronting the endless howls of a man in terrible agony, not only disturbing the profound calm of the forests but also paralysing their sensibilities from fear. One such event was enough, both for those who were present in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when it happened, and for those who centuries later listened to it as the poet retold the story: Dussasana’s screams and screeches, and Bhima’s bays as he severed his hands and dug a hole in his chest. But more than Aswasthama and his audience, Sarala saved Krishna. Some punishments, no matter in whose name, that of justice or whatever else, are a crime against humanity. And no punishment could be harsher and crueller than the one that was meted out to Aswasthama in the canonical text. Krishna was The Supreme Being’s avatara on earth, and Sarala was his devotee, and he saved him from the indignity and the disgrace of pronouncing that demeaning curse.