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Ashwatthama undergoes a shocking moral degeneration towards the end of the Mahabharata War as a result of the unethical killing of his father. He kills the entire sleeping Pandava army and the brothers and sons of Draupadi in the infamous "night time massacre" to exact vengeance for his father's murder, but doesn't stop there: he invokes the Brahmastra and after being incapable of retracting it, sends it to kill Parikshit in the womb, saying that the Pandava lineage should end here; but Lord Krishna, after resurrecting the infant, curses Ashwatthama to wander the earth in a horrible state for millennia as a living embodiment of revenge, an apparently ignoble sentiment.

Whenever I asked my elders whether Ashwatthama's actions were a moral crime, they replied that he was a good man till the Pandavas used lies to kill his father Dronacharya. One adharmic act led to another worse crime, they said.

As far as I know (correct me if I am mistaken) Lord Krishna never cursed anybody except Ashwatthama. Almost all modern readings of the great epic interpret this extreme and rare rage of the Lord as a reaction to Ashwatthama's unacceptable war crimes, with the implication that the progressive unethicality of the war -- adharma breeds adharma -- culminating in the cheating of Drona and the technically wrong blow by Bheema to kill Duryodhana, ended up destroying the originally dharmic Ashwatthama's moral framework and made him capable of extremely brutal acts, arguably crimes against humanity, which invited the Lord's justified punishment: in short, that a progressively adharmic War made Ashwatthama a monster to morality.

Is that interpretation stated explicitly anywhere in the Mahabharata, and if so, please quote the relevant passage.

  • Not that am an expert in any of this, nor am i trying to answer the question posted, but if the stated sentence is true, then pandavas should be the ones performing more demonic /barbaric acts than Ashwatthama for all the adharms conducted against them - just a thought. – Jaya Apr 8 '18 at 1:05
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    Very true @Jaya. The same point was made by @ adithskv's answer. It seems like adharma breeds adharma only in persons having psychological weakness. Too many people including great writers tend to justify the outright immoral actions of Karna and Ashwatthama based on the excuse that they were victims of Adharma (or tragic fate) first. It is highly notable that the Pandavas who were continuously victimised did not commit war crimes such as the night time massacre but only used some morally questionable tricks to defeat Bhishma and Drona, which however, unfortunately, made Ashwatthama a demon. – English Student Apr 8 '18 at 5:14
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Only person who thought in the lines of Drona being killed with fraud caused change to Aswattama is Dhritarashtra while speaking with Sanjaya but it is not explicitly stated anywhere else.

We can infer it from the following words

"Dhritarashtra said, 'After Drona had been slain with the aid of fraud, and the Narayana weapon baffled, what, indeed, did Drona's son, thus urged by Duryodhana then, do, beholding the Parthas once more arrived for battle freed from the Narayana weapon, and careering at the head of their divisions?'

The pent up frustration at the perceived injustice and inability to bind the pandavas with his most powerful weapon might have taken Aswattama down the path mentioned in the question which is natural path he would take based on his inherent qualities that are not supposed to be there for a honour bound warrior.

Source:http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m07/index.htm

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    Thanks a lot for finding the (indirect) reference! I was hoping for something explicit like "the son of Drona lost all sense of Dharma after his father's Adharmic killing. What use of morality when even the Lord advocates deception? Ashwatthama was embittered by his loss and decided to wreak vengeance by any means whether fair or foul, etc." All warriors lost their loved ones to adharma but only Ashwatthama's reaction was extreme, disproportionately destructive, immoral and a war crime which is why the Lord cursed him alone. I am happy to upvote & accept your answer and award you the bounty. – English Student Apr 12 '18 at 13:42
  • Thanks too for the link provided in your excellent answer, which enabled me to begin to read the full text of that awful "night time massacre" in its English translation, and write my own answer based on Ashwatthama's explicit reply to Kripa who pointed out that he was going to commit a most unholy act: hinduism.stackexchange.com/a/26705/14868 – English Student Apr 12 '18 at 14:44
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Only Kripacharya , Kritverma and Ashwatthama were alive after the war. Upset by the defeat and death of loved ones, they were sitting under a great banyan tree. Ashwatthama remembers how his father was insulted, cheated and killed by unfair means. He thought of every person responsible for it.

Ashwatthama observed how an owl, attacked and harassed by crows in the morning, attacked back at night and killed them. He realized that war was best fought from a position of strength.

He went to Duryodhana and found him there lying half dead besides the pond and promises to behead the 5 Pandavas. Kripa tried to dissuade him from doing this adharma but he didn’t listen to him. Kritaverma and Kripa accompanies him to Pandavan camp. There a demon with 1000 eyes (who was Mahakala Rudra) was guarding the Pandavan camp on Krishna's request. Ashwatthama fights the demon, but fails. He then realized who the demon was and offered himself as sacrifice. Mahakala Rudra gets impressed by Ashwatthama and handed his Chandrahaasa sword to Ashwatthama and entered his body. Ashwatthama brutally attacked the pandava camp. He kills Dhristadumnya,Shikhandi and other Pandava warriors. But he kills Draupadi’s five sons believing them to be the Pandava brothers and then burns down the Pandavan Camp and went to Duryodhan but he was dead by then. Ashwatthama then went to Vyasa Ashrama and the Pandavas follwed him. In response he invokes Bramhastra in a grass blade and fires it. Arjuna also launches his bramhastra to counter Ashwatthama’s. Bramha appears in between the two Bramhastras and orders them to be withdrawn. Arjuna was able to withdraw but Ashwatthama couldn’t, so he changes its direction towards the womb of Uttara , Abhimanyu’s wife. Bramhastra burns down the foetus. Pandavas decide to kill him but Krishna but before that Krishna pulls out the gem embedded on his forehead and cursed him to be a depressed immortal.

Source: Padma Purana,(SB 8.13.12,17, Garuda Purana 1.87.36).

  • Thanks for the answer giving the details of the Ashwatthama incident @adithskv. I wanted to know whether the Mahabharata specifically says that adharma following upon adharma made Ashwatthama into a monster? – English Student Apr 5 '18 at 15:42
  • @EnglishStudent, what you say does make sense and I couldn't find any proof supporting or contradicting it. But according to you, if adharma upon adharma really did make Ashwatthama a monster, then think of the pandavas. They were cheated earlier even before the war, which if I go on listing would become too big. But pandavas never became monsters. – adithskv Apr 5 '18 at 16:13
  • Very true @adithskv. Even Kauravas were OK after adharmic killing of Bhishma, Drona, Karna and the loss of many Kaurava brothers each day. Pandavas didn't become monsters even after the dishonorable killing of Abhimanyu. Only Ashwatthama's personality collapsed badly. That's why I was wondering whether our modern interpretations of this matter are maybe not supported by the ancient texts. – English Student Apr 5 '18 at 16:36
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The link provided by @Tej in his excellent answer enabled me to begin to read the full text of that awful "night time massacre" in its English translation.

The following exchange between Kripa and his nephew Ashwatthama is very noteworthy in that Kripacharya clearly warns the son of Drona that he is going to commit a very sinful act:

[Kripa said:] "In this world, the slaughter of sleeping persons is not applauded, agreeably to the dictates of religion. The same is the case with persons that have laid down their arms and come down from cars and steeds. They also are unslayable who say ‘We are thine!' and they that surrender themselves, and they whose locks are dishevelled, and they whose animals have been killed under them or whose cars have been broken.

All the Pancalas will sleep tonight, O lord, divesting themselves of armour. Trustfully sunk in sleep, they will be like dead men. That crooked-minded man who would wage hostility with them then, it is evident, would sink in deep and limitless hell without a raft [to] save himself. In this world [O Ashwatthama] thou art celebrated as the foremost of all persons conversant with weapons.

Thou hast not as yet committed even a minute trespass. When the sun rises next morning and light shall discover all things, thyself, like a second sun in effulgence wilt conquer the foe in battle. This censurable deed, so impossible in one like thee, will look like a red spot on a white sheet. Even this is my opinion."

And this is Ashwatthama's reply:

Ashvatthama said, "Without doubt, it is even so, O maternal uncle, as thou sayest. The Pandavas, however, have before this broken the bridge of righteousness into a hundred fragments. In the very sight of all the kings, before thy eyes also, my sire, after he had laid down his weapons, was slain by Dhrishtadyumna. Karna also, that foremost of car-warriors, after the wheel of his car had sunk and he had been plunged into great distress, was slain by the wielder of gandiva.

Similarly, Shantanu's son Bhishma, after he had laid aside his weapons and become disarmed, was slain by Arjuna with Shikhandi placed in his van. So also, the mighty bowman Bhurishrava, while observant of the praya vow on the field of battle, was slain by Yuyudhana in total disregard of the cries of all the kings! Duryodhana too, having encountered Bhima in battle with the mace, hath been slain unrighteously by the former in the very sight of all the lords of earth. The king was all alone in the midst of a large number of mighty car-warriors standing around him. Under such circumstances was that tiger among men slain by Bhimasena.

Those lamentations that I have heard, of the king lying prostrate on the earth with his thighs broken, from the messengers circulating the news, are cutting the very core of my heart. The unrighteous and sinful Pancalas, who have broken down the barrier of virtue, are even such. Why do you not censure them who have transgressed all considerations? Having slain the Pancalas, those slayers of my sire, in the night when they are buried in sleep, I care not if I am born a worm or a winged insect in my next life [...]

When my sire, having slain hundreds and thousands of warriors with keen shafts, had laid aside his weapons, he was then slain by Dhrishtadyumna. I shall slay that slayer today in a similar condition that is, when he will have laid aside his armour. The sinful son of the king of the Pancalas I shall today slay by a sinful act. It is my resolve to slay like an animal that sinful prince of the Pancalas in such a way that he may not attain to regions earned by persons slain with weapons! Put on your coats of mail without delay and take your bows and swords, and wait for me here, ye foremost of car-warrior and scorchers of foes."

Having said these words, Ashvatthama got upon his car and set out towards the direction of the enemy.

Source: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m10/m10005.htm

While this passage does not explicitly state as a commentary that adharma following upon adharma made Ashwatthama a monster, the son of Drona says it himself to explain his prospectively dishonorable conduct -- in his perception Dharma was first abandoned by the other side:

The Pandavas, however, have before this broken the bridge of righteousness into a hundred fragments [...] The unrighteous and sinful Pancalas, who have broken down the barrier of virtue [...] have transgressed all considerations.

When the Pandava camp has thus resorted to Adharmic means to destroy so many great heroes who fought on the Kaurava side (the full list of which he states in his above reply to Kripa, including his father Drona himself) Ashwatthama is determined to resort to any unholy means to cause the destruction of such immoral persons, specifically because being killed other than in battle will deprive his enemies of the posthumous glory in the afterlife that is reserved for Kshatriyas killed in armed combat:

When my sire [...] had laid aside his weapons, he was then slain by Dhrishtadyumna. I shall slay that slayer today in a similar condition that is, when he will have laid aside his armour. The sinful son of the king of the Pancalas I shall today slay by a sinful act. It is my resolve to slay like an animal that sinful prince of the Pancalas in such a way that he may not attain to regions earned by persons slain with weapons!

That is a sufficient proof for me that grief and rage over his father's unethical killing and the long list of Adharmic acts of destruction perpetrated by the Pandava side on the Kaurava heroes caused Ashwatthama to knowingly forsake the path of Dharma to wreak vengeance on his father's killers, which he considers his primary duty. He is also willing to face any karmic consequence of such a terrible and immoral action:

Having slain the Pancalas, those slayers of my sire, in the night when they are buried in sleep, I care not if I am born a worm or a winged insect in my next life.

Ashwatthaman's descent into vengeful madness led him to slaughter the entire sleeping Pandava army including Draupadi's sons and brothers, and culminated in the unpardonable act of sending the Brahmastra (which unlike Arjuna, he was unable to retract, being a person of impure soul) into the womb of Arjuna's daughter-in-law Uttaraa, widow of Abhimanyu, leading to the stillbirth of Parikshit who was however resurrected by Lord Krishna before the Great God cursed Ashwatthama thusly for being a child-killer:

The holy one said, "The fall of this mighty weapon will not be fruitless. The foetus will die. But being dead, it will live again and have a long life! As regards thyself, all wise men know thee for a coward and a sinful wretch! Always engaged in sinful acts, thou art the slayer of children. For this reason, thou must have to bear the fruit of these thy sins.

For 3,000 years thou shalt wander over this earth, without a companion and without being able to talk with anyone. Alone and without anybody by thy side, thou shalt wander through diverse countries, O wretch, thou shalt have no place in the midst of men. The stench of pus and blood shall emanate from thee, and inaccessible forests and dreary moors shall be thy abode! Thou shalt wander over the Earth, O thou of sinful soul, with the weight of all diseases on thee.

The heroic Parikshit [...] shall rule the earth for sixty years. More than this, that boy shall become the mighty-armed king of the Kurus [...] before thy very eyes, O thou of wicked soul! Though burnt by the energy of thy weapon's fire, I shall revive him. O lowest of men, behold the energy of my austerities and my truth."

The resurrection of Parikshit by Lord Krishna is one of the most awesome incidents in the Mahabharata. The earlier answers by the kind members (that led me towards this understanding of Ashatthama's shocking moral decline) are most appreciated.

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