The only father, who had entered the battlefields of Kurukshetra, making a promise onto himself that he would give up weapons on knowing that his son had been killed, was Drona, the venerable guru of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It would not matter to him at all if someone took advantage of his situation and killed him. He not merely made that decision; he made it known to his enemies on the battlefield. It was a strange condition to give up weapons, to say the least, for a warrior of his stature, who was a wise person with a keen sense of discrimination. And then, by letting his enemy know, didn’t he increase the threats on his life manifold? Not really, because he knew his son.
In any case, for the present, let us content ourselves with this: the story of Drona’s killing begins in the Kurukshetra battlefield – with guru Drona’s blessing of Yudhisthira, when he sought his blessings before the start of the Great War. “May you live long! May my years of life be added on to yours! May your enemies be destroyed and may you rule the kingdom!” was what the guru had said. “We are what we are because of your teaching, O venerable guru,” said the eldest Pandava,” how can we ever hope to win, when you are fighting for the Kauravas?” Yudhisthira was right; the guru knew what they knew, since what they knew was what the guru had taught them. In Sarala Mahabharata, the Kuru princes, Karna, Aswasthama, Dhristadyumna, Shikhandi- all were Drona’s shishyas. None but Duryodhana had been the shishya of another teacher – he had learnt gada vidya (wielding of the mace) from the incomparable Balarama as well. Arjuna and Karna had received weapons from others, as Karna had from god Indra and Arjuna, from Bhagawan Shiva, but they were not their teachers.
The preceptor told Yudhisthira that he could not be defeated by anyone – mortal or immortal, including Bhagawan Shiva or Brahma, so long as he had weapon in hand. He was without weapon only during sex act, bath and eating. And he would give up weapons on hearing that his son Aswasthama was dead: se putra hata boli sunile shastra mu chhadai. It was during any of those four occasions that he could be killed. But of what use, all that! he told Yudhisthira, “The code of Dharma does not allow killing someone, engaged in sex act, bathing and eating; the gravest of sins would accrue to the one violated the injunction”. As for Aswasthama’s death, he was immortal, the guru told the shishya, which was no news, of course, to Yudhisthira because everyone in the world of Sarala Mahabharata knew that at his father’s instance, Aswasthama had performed tapas and had received the boon of immortality from the Creator god, Brahma. And if his son was immortal, so was he, as a consequence; this was what Drona wanted Yudhisthira to understand.
But the virtuous Pandava was happy; the guru had told him how to eliminate him – once Aswasthama was killed, the guru would be in trouble: yudhisthra harasa paina mrutyubheda / asasthama hate dronanku padiba pramada (Yudhisthira was happy, knowing the (guru’s) secret of death / Drona would be in trouble when Aswasthama is killed). But why did he think that his guru had told him the secret of his death – didn’t he tell him also that his son was immortal? The great preceptor had blessed him for victory and that would not go in vain, Yudhisthira knew. So, despite what he had said explicitly, the guru must have implied that Ashwasthama was vulnerable. That was sufficient for the eldest Pandava. He wasn’t thinking of details then.
Incidentally, at this point of time, the following is not out of place: the guru had said that he would give up weapons if he heard that Aswasthma was dead – the poet’s word is “sunile”. Did he want Yudhisthira to take his word literally – that the word was enough for him, whatever be the fact about his son’s death? If the answer is “yes”, then there is no explanation for why he talked, then, about his son’s immortality at all! Now, did Yudhisthira take his word – sunile – literally? The answer is “no”, because had he done so, he wouldn’t have thought in terms of Aswasthama’s death – “aswasthama hate”, as quoted above.
The guru had blessed Yudhisthira for victory but he could not be killed, protected by the ethical code and his son’s immortality. What, then, made Drona bestow that particular blessing on his virtuous shishya and what made the shishya feel reassured?
Did any of them had Krishna in mind? The text says nothing about this.
When Ghatotkacha was killed, it was almost mid night. Ordinarily, the code of war prepared by the Pandavas and the Kauravas before the war, in the presence of the Avatara did not allow fight after sunset. But that had not been an ordinary day. Jayadratha had been killed close to sunset. The safety ring around him was so infallible that no one in the Kaurava camp would have thought that Arjuna would reach him. But what happened was completely out of the ordinary. Apart from Sakuni and maybe Duryodhana, no one in the battlefield could make sense of how after the darkness of the evening, the sun appeared. This story, let us keep for another day.
Jayadratha’s killing and the way it happened greatly frustrated and enraged the Kauravas. They didn’t listen to their commander-in-chief, Drona, when he suggested that fighting must stop since it was night already. They abused him. The armies lit torches and they fought. Many perished. Among them was Drupada, who Drona killed. Ghatotkacha was unstoppable. He killed Alambusha and caused havoc in the Kaurava army. Karna used the infallible divine weapon he had received from Indra, targeting Arjuna and Krishna but it hit Ghatotkacha instead. No matter what one wanted to happen, in the world of Sarala Mahabharata, it was Krishna’s will that happened. Let us keep the details for another day.
Bhima became wild when his son died. He attacked the Kaurava army and devastated it. Whoever tried to stop him, was crushed. Aswasthama, who was with Karna, left him and faced Bhima. He destroyed his chariot and his arrows pierced Bhima’s body all over and drew blood. Bhima lifted Aswasthama’s chariot, with Aswasthama on it and flung it away with great force and it fell miles away. The chariot broke into fragments and an unconscious Aswasthama was bleeding all over.
Kritavarma, the king of Malava, challenged Bhima. He was raining arrows on Bhima, sitting on the back of his huge and powerful elephant named Aswasthama. It was no ordinary elephant; its lineage could be traced to the elephant Airavata, who had emerged from the ocean during its churning in the aeon of Truth. The fierce Aswasthama attacked Bhima but Bhima broke his neck and the elephant fell on the ground and crushed to death those on whom it fell. The divines who were watching the fight from above, called in one voice “aswasthama hata (Aswasthama is dead)”. Soon fighters in the battlefield also started yelling “aswasthama hata”.
Drona was unaware of all this; he was fighting at a distance, at another battlefield. Many kings, princes, celebrated warriors and far too many ordinary soldiers lost their lives that night. Nakul was in the grips of Karna when Durdasa hit Karna from behind with his mace and saved the Pandava. Soon Dhristadyumna challenged Karna. “You are challenging me; where is your father?” asked Karna. “My father would be with Yudhisthira”, said Dhristadyumna. “He is dead”, Karna told him,” He died quite some time back, killed by the great Drona, the son of Varadwadasha”. A furious Dhristadyumna attacked Karna and destroyed his chariot in no time.
At that time, a thick fog arrived and soon enveloped the entire battlefield. The dim light of the torches was of no use. In that last hour of the night, it became extremely cold. The fighters started shivering. To bring them relief, Arjuna shot arrows of fire at Shalya and it became warm on the battlefield. Much relieved, said the fighters from both sides, “Glory be to you, O Falguni (one of Arjuna’s names)! May you live long. May you vanquish your enemies”.
The battle resumed. Dristadyumna and Shikhandi sought Drona and found him. They told him what Karna had told them. How could he kill his friend, they asked him. He surely was not unaware that killing a friend was a grievous sin, they told him. Knowing that he was his father’s friend, Dhritadyumna told him, he had not harmed him till then, but now, he was not going to spare him. He would not return to his kingdom without killing him, thundered the grief-stricken son of Drupada. The engagement between them was fierce but Dhristadyumna couldn’t harm his great adversary.
Everybody was exhausted in the extreme – those who fought on foot, those who fought on horseback, on the back of the elephants and on chariots – everyone. They fell asleep wherever they were – on horseback, elephant, chariots and the ground. Those who were awake, killed their enemies who were half-asleep or asleep. Those who were half asleep tried to kill those who were asleep. Arjuna told Krishna that the fight should stop. The morning stars had appeared and birds had already started chirping and the auspicious sound of the conchs could be heard from a distance. Dawn would not take long to arrive.
It was then that Drona heard that Aswasthama was dead. No one told him; those who were still awake were telling each other that Aswasthama was dead. In great anxiety and grief, he went from here to there in the battlefields, hoping to find his son. He was nowhere to be seen. He recalled that he hadn’t seen him since midnight. The words aswasthama hata reverberated in his ears. But he was in disbelief – he was certain that killing his son was absolutely impossible for anyone fighting in the Kurukshetra War. Then it occurred to him: did Krishna do something: se putra baddha karibaku ke bharata juddhe sama / charakute nasa kaleka aba sri purusottama (Of all those fighting in the War, none was capable of killing that (i.e., my) son / Did Shri Purusottama (i.e., Krishna) play some trick to kill him)? He knew the Avatara; he was his devotee. He knew that nothing was beyond him. He could make things happen which would demand redefining truth and illusion and mortality and immortality.
Then he started looking for his son’s body from among the heaps of bodies lying everywhere. He couldn’t find his body and then he heard the voice from the sky – aswasthma hata. He went to Karna. He remembered that the last he had seen Aswasthama was when he was fighting the enemy together with Karna. Karna said, “O venerable guru, Aswasthama was killed soon after midnight, but I didn’t tell you because the fight was going on”. Unconvinced, the guru asked Salya. He told him that he had nothing good to tell him about his son. The guru kept asking about his son whoever he met. When he asked Sakuni, he said his son was dead, leaving him a miserable, forlorn man. “With a son like Aswasthama dead, how have you survived? said Sakuni.
The Pandavas had returned to their camp. Sahadeva told Yudhisthira that Aswasthama had fallen that night. “Who could do the impossible?” asked the eldest Pandava. The knower of the past and the future said that it was Bhima. And he did not have the great elephant in mind. When Bhima flung Aswasthama in his chariot, it fell miles away from the battlefield and the chariot broke to pieces and Aswasthama perished: ratha gheni udi padila aswasthama / yete dure padina se nasa galaka mahatma (Aswasthama fell from on the ground along with his chariot / that noble soul perished in that distant place from that fall), he told Yudhisthira.
This was the only time in Sarala Mahabharata when the all-knower said something that was not a fact. How does one understand this? The text offers no clue. Now, did he tell a lie? He knew that Yudhisthira, who knew that he was the knower of the past and the future, would believe him. So, if it would so happen, which was very likely, that Drona would ask him about his son, he would tell him that he was no more. There is, however, no support for this view in the text.
Krishna told the virtuous man that the guru would come to him and ask him about his son. “O son of Dharma”, said Krishna, “you must tell him that Aswasthama is dead. The guru would die on hearing that from you”. The son of Dharma flatly refused. He was not going to tell his guru that his son was dead. Seeing, chakshusa pramana, constituted the best proof and he hadn’t seen Aswasthama dead. So to tell the guru that his son was dead would amount to telling him a lie. “O Keshava (a name of Krishna)”, said Yudhisthira, “one who tells his guru a lie suffers in this world and in the other world”. Whatever be the consequences, whether he won or lost the war, he was not going to tell his guru a lie. “You must have heard that the elephant named Aswasthama is dead”, said Krishna, “just say the man or the elephant Aswasthama is dead and when you utter, ‘elephant’, keep your voice low: nara ki gunjara aswasthamara marana / karibe dhire gunjara sabda uchharana (The man or the elephant Aswasthama is dead / When you say ‘elephant’, say it in a low voice)”.
The Kauravas too had returned to their camp. Drona went to Duryodhana and asked him about Aswasthama. “I was in the battlefield then. Aswasthama perished in the hands of Bhima”, said the Kaurava king. The guru threw away his bow and arrows and with just his sword, he went to the Pandavas. The five Pandavas prostrated themselves at the guru’s feet. “May you be victorious. May you live long”, blessed the guru.
He then asked Yudhisthira about his son. He did not ask Bhima, who, he was told, had killed him and he did not ask his favourite shishya, Arjuna; neither did he ask the all-knowing Sahadeva. He asked the son of Dharma. The son of Dharma told him what he had been instructed to tell. Drona collapsed and the sword fell from his hand. Obeying Krishna’s indication, Dhristadyumna cut off his head. From his severed body, a bright, shining light rose into the sky.
There was no place in the war fields of Kurukshetra than the Pandavas’ camp, where Drona was more revered. The fight had stopped for the day and the Pandavas and the Kauravas had made it part of their war code to be cordial to each other from the time the fight stopped for the day till the following day when it would resume. During that time everyone was safe. It was during that period and of all places, in the Pandavas’ camp that the guru was killed. And that too when he was unconscious. His killing removed a huge obstacle from the Pandavas’ path to victory but it brought them no glory.
The only saving grace was that Drona’s killing did not go without a protest. With his sword raised and revenge in his eyes, a deeply hurt and angry Arjuna charged at Dhristadyumna. Intervention by the Avatara himself saved the commander-in-chief of the Pandava army from the wrath of Drona’s favourite shishya.
Aswasthama was on his way back to the battlefield when Kripacharya told him about his father’s death.