The rains had been exceptionally good this year. The current was strong “enough to drown an elephant. Maybe even the wretched one who shared my name.” he thought as water filled his lungs again and he again tried to spit it out to gasp for air. It did cause him discomfort, yet it could not harm him. “What could an overflowing river do when an active volcano had failed?” He thought bitterly while coming out of the river.
The few stolen clothes he was wearing were torn from various places. Pain seared though the open wound upon his forehead as he tried to concentrate his eyes upon his surroundings. He could see plains. So he had travelled down the mountains in just one night. He started swimming towards the bank.
He wanted to visit the place again in the hope that this time his prayers might be answered. “It is the only way.” Yama’s voice echoed in his ears. Yama, the lord of death and justice had refused to take him and had suggested him to visit that place again and again, and pray for redemption until finally Narayana decided to change his mind.
“Narayana” he thought. I never actually knew he was you how could have I, he looked like a normal human being to me.” He had reached the bank and now he would have to walk to the place where it all had begun. His eyes fell upon a tattered old blanket lying near the bank. And he picked it up to hide his face, to cover his forehead and the open wound upon it.
Over the past month he had gotten used to the changes that had taken place in the world during his absence. The roads were now not made of dirt but some black material that had molten when he had tried to start a fire upon it. He had learnt to read and comprehend the common language while begging for food and was amazed how little had it changed over the time. He was feeling hungry again. Maybe he would beg or steal once he was in a place inhabited by humans. He realized that he was walking through a field.
“Wheat.” He realized looking at the crop, “civilization won’t be too far away. Maybe they will be kind enough to offer food to a mute old man.” He chuckled as he thought of himself as old. He was not old, he was more than 5000 years old and yet he could bring down several young man in hand to hand combat. Maybe he should kill a few of them and they might finish him off.
As the thought of harming others crossed his mind, his wound throbbed with pain, a shrill sound with an unknown source filled his ears and everything around him went dark. Closing his eyes he sat upon the ground as his fingers tried to stop his wound from bleeding. He unconsciously remembered the day when his misfortunes had begun. Long ago, when he still had a priceless jewel, a Mani in place of this hole filled with blood and pus. When he was a great warrior who had slain an entire army all by himself. When he had wielded the Chandrahas, sword of the mighty Ravana. When he was not a sorry old beggar.
When he still had a name, the one given to him for the neighing sound that he had produced when he was born.
“Ashwathama, crown prince Suyodhan has fallen” Krip, his uncle had said without any emotion.
“No” he had said, unbelieving. Suyodhan’s entire body had become hard as Vajra, how could he fall in battle. There was some mistake in this. This too was a lie, like the one that had claimed the life of his father three days previously.
“No” he said again. “he was invincible, his entire body was hard as a rock.”
“His entire body, but for his thighs. Which were broken by Bhima a while ago.” Krip replied again without the trace of any emotion.
“Thighs but it’s not permissible in a mace fight to…” His voice trailed off as he found out the answer, “Vaasudev Krishna. Again.”
“Yes” Krip answered in a monosyllable.
The answer had filled him with rage “That single unarmed man has caused us more damage than the entire Pandava army.” He roared venting out his frustration.
“He pointed out that that impotent cowardly fool, Shikhandi was a woman in his previous birth whom Bhisma wont attack. He knew that it was an eclipse and still staged the drama of Arjuna committing self-immolation just to bring Jaidrath out. He, he spread the word that I was dead and ..” he broke down remembering how Vaasudev Krishna had first arranged for the false news of his death to spread across the battlefield and when his father, the mighty Drona had went to Yudhishthir the self-proclaimed lord of Dharma that cow-heard had blown his conch shell timely enough to obfuscate the words “Naro waa kunjaro waa” (the elephant and not the man). Hearing this Drona had dropped his weapons and Dhrishtdyumn, spawn of that cheat Drupad and commander of the Pandava army had chopped his head off like a lamb.”
“NO” he yelled again as tears had flowed down his face. He would avenge his father he would avenge his dear friend Karna, he would avenge his lord and master, the crown prince of Hastinapur, Lord Suyodhan.”
Krip had come near him to pat him on his shoulder trying to comfort him. He looked at his uncle who along with Kritvarma and himself were the 3 survivors of the greatest army that had ever assembled and defeated, effectively by one man alone. A mere cowherd of a remote hamlet in Braj. His innards boiled with anger.
“Uncle,” He said when he had found his voice back. “Take me to the prince, the war is not over yet.”
Duryodhan lay on the near the lake, broken. His breath came is gasps. He broke down as he saw the last three champions of his army approached him.
“I lost, the battle, my kingdom, my brothers, everything. O Ashwathama, the one who neighed like a horse upon birth, do this one last favour to me and end this miserable life of mine. So that I may join my fallen brothers in Swarga.”
“No, my prince. Suicide is a crime above all others. Don’t say so I Ashwathama, son of Drona still draw breath.” Saying this he held Duryodhan’s head withing his own hands. He could feel the kuru princes tears flow down his hands.
“My lord, promise to avenge you and your fallen brothers. I shall try my best to eradicate the Pandva Army. I promise to eradicate the entire Pandva lineage.”
Duryodhan looked up gasping for breath.
“I have fallen in battle, and will go to the highest of the high halls of Swarga. Yet I want you to avanege me o Ashwatahma son of My guru Drona. I hereby anoint you the supreme commander of the kuru forces and trust upon you the task of the anhilation of the offspring of Kunti and Maadri.” His voiced trailed off and he fell silent. Kripacharya checked his breath.
“He is still alive but not for much longer.” He pronounced again in his characteristic emotionless voice.
Ashwathama sighed again. The pain in his wound has subsided, he could get up again and resume his journey towards Kurukshetra . He stood up and moved towards the road. The path will be easier on road. This path might have snakes.
Snakes, he smiled. They could not kill him. But they could cause him enough pain to wish he was dead. Everything could cause him pain and ye not kill him. He remembered jumping into a volcano a millaneium ago wishing to end his existence. Instead he had woken up in a desert. Alone and naked in the scorching sun, his body bearing the burns from the volcano. It had taken him more than a year to regain his ability to move.
He shuddered as he remembered the pain and his mind drifted back to the day he was cursed to life. Sauptik Parva , the day of sleep as Krishna Dwaipanya Vyas had called it in his retelling of the story.
Ashwathama could not sleep. He had to finish off the Pandava’s. How? He wondered. They were too many and too strong, he could not simply walk into the Pandva camp. Lost in thought he suddenly noticed a large bird, an owl descend upon the tree he was sleeping under. Before he could realise anything, some bird shrieked. And then another one shriekd. The atmosphere was full of painful cries of birds as their broken and ripped bodies fell towards the bottom of the tree. The owl had chosen to strike when his worst enemies were asleep. Amazed at this, Ashwathama looked skywards seeing the owl fly away victorious.
Realization dawned upon him as he smiled. He had found a way to eliminate his foes, the entire Pandva army. He woke up his uncle and Kritvarma. It was time to avenge the fallen Kurus.
Despite the repeated protests from Krip and Kritvarma Ashwathama proceeded towards the Pandawa camp.
“They would all be Soma drunk tonight. All I need to do is to set fire to the stables and they will be roasted in their sleeps. So intoxicated by their victory are they, that they have not even posted sentries outside.” He said to himself as the Pandava barracks came into view.
He pulled out his sword ready to begin the Massacre when he noticed a human figure standing at the camp gates. The man was tall, fair and well-built with long matted hair. His fair skin was covered with the ashes of cremation grounds and he was nothing but a clothing of tiger skin upon his body. Ashwathama stared in amazement as the one with a cobra coiled around his shining blue throat spoke his name. “Ashwathama.” He said “I was expecting you.”
Ashwathama looked in wonder at the three eyed one as he addressed him,
“I know you have come to end the lives of the ones inside this camp. That was why I was waiting for you. Their task upon this mortal plane is done it is time that they are produced in Yama’s court. Yet Yama needs some reason to end their lives and you are that reason o son of Drona.”
As the dancer of Tandava said this, a sword appeared in his hands. It was a sword for sure but unlike anything that Ashwathama had seen in his life. It emanated a faint white glow as if it were a part of the moon itself.
“Be not amazed o brave Ashwathama, this is Chandrahasa, the moonsword, made purely from moonlight and previously owned by the mighty Lord Dasanana of Lanka.”
Ashwathama worldelssly took the sword and bowed before Lord Rudra and when he raised his head again, Shiva was gone.
Feeling certain of his victory Ashwathama moved inside to begin the massacre. He felt a faint song emanate from the moonsword, as if the very material of that astra was singing with blood lust.
And he smiled again.
Ashwathama was thrown off balance, he was hit by something from behind. He didn’t know what but every muscle in his body screamed. He rolled off the roadside losing consciousness the memory of his deeds still playing back in his mind.
Wielding Chandrahasa, Ashwathama moved inside the Pandava camp. The song of the moonsword was now clearly audible in the stillness of the night. As if it were lamenting the massacre it was going to cause.And as the sound grew louder the sword shone more brightly and the stillness around Ashwathama grew more pronounced. Not a being stirred within the Pandava camp. The sword-song had put everyone except Ashwathama to sleep.
He first moved to Dhristdyuman’s pavilion the guards were sprawled upon the ground. Sleeping peacefully. He despatched them without the slightest inconvenience. The sword worked through their flesh with the ease of a hot dagger cutting through a wax seal.
He walked in casually and sliced Dhrishtdyuman’s head off with the same ease. Brilliant white flames danced upon the sword. He touched the sword to Dhirstdyman’s inert body and it too was engulfed in the same white fire.
He moved to the tent of Pandavas and without ado chopped their heads off. He emptied a sack and filled the heads in it. To present to his lord and master King Suyodhan, the rightful heir of Puru dynasty.
Coming out he touched the fabric of the tent with his sword stting it aflame.
Drupad, Virat, Yuyutsu, he slayed them all and the lament of the sword grew louder and the flames brighter.
Having killed the entire surviving Pandava army, he moved with the sack containing the heads of the Sons of Pandu to his lord.
Ashwathama stirred, he was able to open his eyes and move his limbs and fortunately he had broken no bones. It was some time past dawn. He picked up the blanket and covered his face again. He felt hungry. Yet had no money to pay for food. He must steal again or beg. Begging could be a good option. He could not speak and maybe these people did show some kindness to old mute beggars.
Thinking this he let his nose lead him towards a roadside “dhaba”. If he stood there long enough perhaps the stall owner will give him something to eat.
He carried the sack to Duryodhan who though gasping for breath demanded to see Bhima’s head. Ashwathama gave him what he thought was Bhima’s head. Duryodhan punched the head with all his remaining might. It shattered like an undercooked earthen pot upon this Duryodhan grew suspicious and demanded for another head, thinking that Ashwatham had handed him the wrong head. Puzzled Ashwathama showed him all the heads collected by him. Then in the light of breaking dawn as the both of them saw that the heads actually belonged to the five sons of Pandava’s from Draupadi.
Frustrated and unable to bear this shock, Duryodhan breathed his last. As Ashwathama realiezed that the Pandavas were still alive and would now be searching for him. To face them in broad daylight would by downright suicidal.
He must wait for his chance to strike again until then he should hide from their eyes. With Duryodhan gone, all his courage seemed to desert him, suddenly he was afraid of the sons of Pandu.
Ashwathama ran for his life.
“Beardo” came a foreign voice.
“Ginny, look at that beard it must be atleast 3 feet long.” A foreigner wearing strange clothes and sitting outside the dhaba was looking curisoly at Ashwathama. He didn’t know the foreigner’s language yet was able to understand every word of it.
The foreigner came to him “Will you come with me old man, I want a picture with you” Sensing his opportunity for Ashwathama touched his tongue and shook his head while keeping his wound hidden. He made a sound to indicate that he was unable to speak.
“Wha. You can’t speak old fellow . No problems COME” he gestured “WITH ME” and pointed towards himself “INSIDE.” He pointed “FOOD”
Ashwathama’s eyes lit up under the blanket.
While he was eating and the tourist couple was measuring his beard heard saw a peculiar sight upon the road. Children, all of them wearing similar clothes were walking upon the road carrying banners and posters. He saw a shape looking like a foetus on a placard and shuddered remembering the worst part of his fate. “No he must not remember it.” He tried to force the memories of that day out of his mind and concentrate upon eating when the girl named Ginny who was accompanying the foreigner asked someone about the procession.
“It’s a group of school children taking out a procession to educate people against female feticide.”
“Female what?” the girl asked.
“Feticide. It is common in these parts of India” Ashwathama choked on his food. His wound throbbed with pain.
“There are many countries that prohibit abortions, then what is special about females here?” Ginny asked, her interest growing.
“you see” the man was explaining “people here consider girls as burden and by using…”
As the man told Ginny about the situation in northern India Ashwathama was unable to control both his pain and his terror. His eyes widened in shock, and despite his best attempts the images of that fateful day from the of ashram of Rishi Krishna Dwaipanya Vyas swam before his eyes.
The Pandavas, led by Vaasudev Krishna had found him there. They had thought he was cornered but he was not. As the moved towards him he picked up a single piece of straw from the ground and started chanting the invocation to the Bramhastra. No later than the first syllables of the chant had left his mouth he felt the energy of Brahamn flowing through him into the straw. Chanting, he opened his eyes ready to unleash the Brahmastra upon the Pandavas and Vaasudev Krishna only to find Arjuna chanting a similar invocation to the Pashupateya Mahastra. Ashwathama increased the speed of his chanting, to deploy the astra before Arjuna was done with his invocation. Arjuna followed suit.
He raised his hand to command the piece of straw, now glowing with a bluish white light, to eradicate the Pandavas along with Vaasudev Krishna once and for all. But before the wrath of Brahma could be unleashed a figure appeared out of nowhere, exactly in between him and Arjuna.
He wore robes of the purest red, held a Veena in hands and his shikha stood upright. He was Narada, the celestial sage.
“Fools.” Narada said to him and Arjuna. “These weapons are not meant for your personal blood feuds, neither are they meant to be deployed on living mortals. Withdraw them now.” As Narada said this, Maharishi Krishna Dwaipanya Vyas had joined him, blocking the paths of Arjuna and Ashwathama.
“Very well, I shall withdraw it” Arjuna said without further ado requested the Pashupateya astra to return.
Ashwathama on the other hand simply had no knowledge about stopping the Brahmastra, a thing that he stated without any trace of remorse.
“Who asked you to brandish it like a cowherd’s crook nincompoop if you didn’t know to stop it, now give it a target of bear it upon yourself,.” Vyasa said, enraged.
“Target, where shall I find a target for this thing? Its forbidden to use it upon living mortals…” he started, and then looking upon Arjuna he found his answer, it can’t be used on living mortals they had said, he will use it upon a yet non-living mortal then. Someone unborn, his snarl turned into a smile as he commanded the Bramhastra to its target. To the womb of Uttara, the pregnant wife of Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s fallen son.
“If it cannot destroy their present let it destroy their future.” He said with a victorious smile.
The Pandavas looked confused at this statement, while he saw the expression of Vaasudev Krishna change from amazement to shock to disgust to that of utmost loathing within a fraction of a second.
“ASHWATHAMA” he roared and raised his right hand as the golden discus, the Sudarshan appeared on his index finger. There was no mistaking the Sudarshan and it could only be wielded by one, Lord Vishnu, protector of the universe. So Vaasudev Krishna was Narayana after all. He(Ashwathama) was too late in knowing that. Just a swipe of that finger and he will be gone. But he would be dying at the hands of Narayana himself. That was his ticket to moksha, freedom from the eternal cycle of life and death, as this thought crossed his mind he smiled braced himself to face death.
Then he heard Krishna’s voice again, it was low but menacing. “No, I cant let you go so easily” He lowered his hand as the Sudarshan disappeared. “You, Ashwathama are a disgusting creature, someone whose mere presence is polluting the world and yet I am letting you go. Do not think that you are redeemed. I have just figured out that death will be too small a punishment for your sins, too small. You gave death to thousands of sleeping soldiers and thought you were powerful, thought you could dole out suffering like no other. You were wrong Ashwathama, wrong while you have cursed so many to death I Vaasudev Krishna curse you to life. Live, live through all eternity, cursed to carry your sins upon you with an open wound upon your head to remind you of your doings, Your body always stinking with the stench of you misdeeds. Your strength wont fail but do not think that you can harm others any longer. Live through entire Dwapar and Kali. And then you may be redeemed. Now begone.”
He felt a strange sensation in his forehead as if the Mani that was a part of it till then was burning through his flesh. It was. He fell to his knees trying to wrench the thing away from himself. He screamed in agony as he drew out a dagger and cut it away from himself. He sat there crying while the Pandavas had left with Krishna and Narda had disappeared.
Since then he had tried all ways to finish himself off but to no avail. he was cursed to this existence for the entire length of kali. Until Vaasudev Krishna arrived again in the form of Kalki to free him of his pain. And till then he was trapped within this wretched mortal body. Doomed to carry the burden of his sins with him. And he had pitied himself since that day, for his punishment due to attempted killing of an unborn child.
Yet today he pitied others. The parents who had ordered killings of their daughters before they had had a chance to draw breath. Vaidyas and physicians, protectors of life who had acting as paid assains for unborn girls. If this was his fate for attempting to kill one unborn boy what would be theirs for killing so many incarnations of Sri, the divine essence feminine that was all pervasive. He felt a savage pleasure as he thought of these damned souls whose crimes were much greater than his. He felt the sadistic joy flow across his scarred existance. His face curled up in a smile. And he forgot about his blanket that had rolled back exposing his face and the open wound, which for some reason had suddenly started healing. Making Ginny and his companion to reel back in horror. Yet he was unconcerned about being found out. For soon there will be too many like him, too many, living corpses crushed under the burdens of their doings. And then he laughed, for the first time since the massacre of the Pandava army. He laughed like a manic rolling on the floor in glee for there shall be more who would share his plight.
Ashwathama was happy.