It is well known that Mahabharata can be seen as an allegory for human life. 

The characters of Yuddhishthira, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva are frequently discussed in this context. Even Bhishma, Drona, Dhritrashtra and Gandhari find a place in this representation.

However, I hardly found any discussion about Ashwatthama.

I feel this is important because he is at the receiving end of great suffering at the end of the war. Throughout the epic his character seems quite acceptable, except for the large mistakes towards the end.  Also his immortality is a very important aspect of his character as well as his suffering.

Contemplating on this matter lead me to the possibility that Ashwatthama represents persistent doubt and criticizing nature of human beings.

Following are some thoughts that fall in line.

1) The name Ashwatthama also means a banyan tree. Branches of banyan sprout new roots which go deep in the soil. Similarly new doubts spring from existing ones and often become stronger with time. Also note banyan tree has a very long life span.

2) Ashwatthama will be alive till end of this Yuga cycle, suffering in the process, but will be the compiler of Vedas in next Yuga cycle. Doubts inspite of causing suffering and insecurity if used constructively lead to great learning.

3) Ashwatthama often doubts people around him. He doubts love of his father. He doubts Duryodhana's capability to win etc. Also note that in Kannad version of Mahabharata he is released of Krishna's curse after worshiping para Shakti. Adi Parashakti or Durga is also known as reliever of difficult and persistent doubts.

These are my musings. Would  love to know views of learned readers.

Edit: Also the most important point if Parikshit is the one who is tested, then Ashwatthama is the one who conducts the test.

  • Aswatthama was an uncontrollable attitude. His joining hands with Duryodhana was due to his father remaining in that camp. His father knew his attitude, and refused to give knowledge of brahmasIrsha astra, which is all powerful. However, later budged due to paternal love, which is contrary to the rules. Dec 23 '19 at 2:53
  • Just a small edit. Ashwathama was cursed to be alive for 3000 years and not till end of Yuga cycle Dec 25 '19 at 2:22

Shreemad Bhagwad Geeta known as Yatharth Geeta is very beautifully compiled and interpreted by Paramhans Swami Adgadanand. It is expressed in the best possible allegoric way. Symbolizing each and every character of Mahabharata.

Pdf book and Audio book is available for free by Shri Paramhans Ashram Trust.

He states the following about Ashwatthama:

Preface page. xvi

Opposed to the Pandav army, embodiments of pious impulses that are beyond counting, is the army of Kurukshetr-of the Kaurav-with a strength of eleven akshauhini. Eleven is the number of the ten sense organs and the one mind. That which is constituted of the mind along with the ten senses is the devilish hoard, a part of which is

Dhritrashtr, who persists in ignorance in spite of his awareness of truth.

Gandhari, his consort, is the type of sense-bound disposition.

Along with them there are also,

Duryodhan, the symbol of excessive infatuation;

The evil-minded Dushashan;

Karn, the perpetrator of alien deeds;

The deluded Bheeshm;

Dronacharya of dual conduct;

Ashwatthama, the image of attachment;

the skeptical Vikarn;

Kripacharya, the type of compassionate conduct in a state of incomplete worship; and

Vidur, who stands for the Self that dwells in ignorance but whose eyes are always aimed at the Pandav.

Chapter 1 page. 8

भवातभीष्मश्च कणश्ा च कृ पश्च सषमनतर्ं यः।

अश्वत्मथामा ववकणाश्च सौमदवत्तस्त्तथैव च ॥८॥

It is thus that Ashwatthama is an image of inordinate attachment, Vikarn of indecision, and Bhurishrawa of perplexity and confusion.

Here, the adjective "inordinate" used for "attachment" makes it clear that why Ashwatthama is known as Chiranjivi. Ashwatthama depict a soul which is excessively attached to life.

Inordinate according to Cambridge dictionary is "much more than usual or expected"


अश्वत्थामन्, Aśvatthāman means the horse-voiced.

At the time of his birth, he neighed like the (celestial) steed Ucchaihsravas.

Drona, obedient to the injunctions of his father and moved by the desire of offspring married Kripi, the daughter of Saradwat. And this woman, ever engaged in virtuous acts and the Agnihotra, and the austerest of penances, obtained a son named Aswatthaman. And as soon as Aswatthaman was born, he neighed like the (celestial) steed Ucchaihsravas.

Hearing that cry, an invisible being in the skies said, 'The voice of this child hath, like the neighing of a horse, been audible all around. The child shall, therefore, be known by the name of Aswatthaman, (the horse-voiced).

Drona used to instruct his own son in several superior methods (of using weapons), by devising a plan to engage the Pandavas, Kauravas and other disciples. However, Arjuna being very sharp, understood his Guru's methods, overcome those hurdles and learnt all the weapons that Drona taught to Aswatthaman.

Aswatthaman excelled everyone (in the mysteries of the science of arms). Arjuna, however, outdistanced everyone in every respect--in intelligence, resourcefulness, strength and perseverance.

Accomplished in all weapons, Arjuna became the foremost of even the foremost of car-warriors; and his fame spread all over the earth to the verge of the sea. And although the instruction was the same, the mighty Arjuna excelled all (the princes in lightness of hand). Indeed, in weapons as in devotion to his preceptor, he became the foremost of them all. And amongst all the princes, Arjuna alone became an Atiratha (a car-warrior capable of fighting at one time with sixty thousand foes).

Drona considered Arjuna to be the foremost of all his pupils, and became highly pleased and gave him very superior and irresistible weapon called Brahmasira with the methods of hurling and recalling it.

Aswatthaman might have got envious with Arjuna at this juncture. He forced his father to teach him the usage of that superior weapon Brahmasira. Out of fondness, he taught it to his son, which scriptures prohibit.

His father Drona remained loyal and lived Hastinapura. The Northern province of Panchala, which Arjuna won for Drona from Drupada, was ruled by Aswatthaman.

The greatest blunder that Drona did, after getting revenge against Drupada done, was to continue to live among kshatriyas, leaving his basic duties as brAhmana. This lead to development of rAjasic tendency within him, which finally led to devising a devilish plan to eliminate Abhimanyu, who was all alone.

Even Aswatthaman, who dutifully followed his father, became engrossed with cruelty, which ultimately led him to kill the sleeping army of Pandavas, after the fall of Duryodhana, in the night.

Though scriptures prohibit a Guru to impart knowledge of superior weapons to ineligible one, Still Drona taught Aswatthaman the usage of brahmasira, but did not teach him to withdraw it. Aswatthaman used it for the destruction of Pandava race.

Blinded by anger he allowed his brahmasira weapon, which he could not withdraw, to fall on the wombs of the Pandava women.

For this devilish act, Sri Krishna cursed Aswatthaman as follows:

For 3,000 years thou shalt wander over this earth, without a companion and without being able to talk with anyone.

To conclude, we can say that Aswatthaman was a great warrior, but with uncontrollable anger, which led to his downfall.

As far as I understood, there was no symbolism in Aswatthaman's story, except lessons to be learnt.

Drona and Aswatthaman are examples of how a brAhmana, possessing skills of high degree, should not be.

  • The most abhorrent deed of Ashwatthama was to redirect the brahmashira on an unborn kid. The magnitude of this act can be judged by the fact that even in the Mahabharata war itself, no civilian was harmed. Even Duryodhana did not harm civilians, much less an unborn kid.
    – user16581
    Dec 24 '19 at 1:19
  • @Iwillcloseyourquestion: You are right. Actually, the root cause of Aswatthama's cruelty was Drona. Dec 24 '19 at 1:22
  • I thought the question was about symbolism behind the character. All I see here is a description of the character. Dec 28 '19 at 18:47

In her book, Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, Irawati Karve explains the symbolism behind Aśvatthāma's character:

Kripa tried his best to dissuade him from this base plan. In this talk one sentence of Ashvatthama is especially significant. He told his uncle, "You tell me to act like a Brahmin, but I have never learned the Brahmin code. From childhood onward, all I have learned is weaponry. I was born in a high Brahmin family, but unlucky that I am, I have lived as a Kshatriya. Now let me follow that dharma."


In our philosophy, smriti (memory, consciousness) and moha (confusion) have a great importance and a special meaning. The Gita's description of the chain of causality ending in a man's destruction is well-known: "Anger leads to loss of consciousness, loss of consciousness brings about confusion in memory, which leads in its turn to the loss of thinking power. And the loss of thinking power destroys a person." From childhood to death the one thread that creates the oneness in a man's ever-changing life is smriti. Smriti is the power which enables a man to have the ever-present consciousness of who he is and the knowledge that he is the same person from moment to moment. It is because of smriti that a man understands what his duties are, and where he is going. In the Mahabharata the question "Who am I?" is bound up with the question, "What is my place?" Thus the answer to the question of a man's duty too is dependent on the place he holds.

Extraordinary people like Krishna and Buddha remember all their former births, and thus reach a oneness not possible for ordinary beings. The ordinary man must try to keep the thread of smriti unbroken at least for this one life. The stress on remaining conscious up to the moment of death is based on this conviction. This is the reason the Gita says one should die in full consciousness, in broad daylight, when the sun is in the north and the moon is waxing. The great effort was not to give in to darkness, not to lose smriti on any account.

Bhishma's smriti remained unimpaired all his life. Arjuna was confused as to his duty, but Krishna reminded him of what he was. Waking to the cruel necessity of his duty, Arjuna said, "Now my confusion is gone, I have regained my smriti." Drona never had that burning consciousness of his own dharma. As for Ashvatthama, he had completely forgotten himself. He had given up his own dharma and could never understand the dharma of others. He was born a Brahmin. He would have become a king because his father had acquired a kingdom. He had learned the use of terrible weapons, but he did not use them to bring victory to Duryodhana; after everything had been lost, he used them only for his own revenge and safety. He had rejected his Brahminhood, and could never manage to become a Kshatriya. He is the unforgettable example of the loss of smriti.

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