Massacre by Night
After leaving the battlefield the Pāṇḍavas went to Duryodhana’s camp, as was the custom, to seek the spoils of war; but they found it deserted, except for a few servants. They rode in their chariots up to Duryodhana’s royal tent and dismounted. As Arjuna was about to climb down from his chariot, Kṛṣṇa said, “Take the Gāṇḍīva and your two quivers, O Pārtha. I will get down after you.”
Arjuna looked curiously at Kṛṣṇa, but he did as he was requested. After he had got down, Kṛṣṇa jumped clear of the chariot. At that moment, Hanumān left the banner and vanished. As he did so, the chariot suddenly caught fire without any apparent cause. In moments it was a pile of ashes.
The Pāṇḍavas gazed in amazement at the charred and smoldering remains. Arjuna asked Kṛṣṇa what had happened and He replied, “The chariot was struck by the most powerful celestial weapons. Only because of My presence was it not previously incinerated.”
Kṛṣṇa went over to Yudhiṣṭhira and embraced him with a smile. “O King, by good fortune you have gained victory. By good fortune you and all your brothers are well. Now do what should be done to rule the earth.”
Placing an arm around Arjuna’s shoulder, Kṛṣṇa continued, “Previously, this Dhanañjaya greeted Me when I came to Virata, offering Me worship and love. He said, ‘O Keśava, You are my brother and friend. Indeed, You are the Lord of my life. Therefore, You should always protect me.’ I responded, ‘So be it!’ and have kept My word.”
Tears fell from the Pāṇḍavas’ eyes as Kṛṣṇa spoke. In a choked voice Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “Surely we owe our lives, wealth and kingdom to You, O Janārdana. Everything is due only to Your favor. Who but You could have withstood the weapons of Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Karṇa. Only because of Your protection was Arjuna able to defeat so many invincible heroes. The great Ṛṣi Vyāsadeva told me that wherever You are, there will always be righteousness and victory.”
Kṛṣṇa smiled. With an arm around both Yudhiṣṭhira and Arjuna He entered Duryodhana’s tent, followed by the other Pāṇḍavas. The empty tent resembled a city devoid of festivities. Duryodhana’s golden throne looked desolate. It was surrounded by his counselors’ seats. Those fine seats had formerly been occupied by the Kuru chiefs in their silk robes and golden ornaments. Now they looked like abandoned mansions. As the Pāṇḍavas moved through the tent they came upon Yuyutsu. He was Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s only surviving son. Filled with sorrow and realizing that the responsibility of leadership had fallen to him, he sat pondering what he should do.
Seeing that the Pāṇḍavas had arrived, he stood and offered them respects. Yudhiṣṭhira embraced him and spoke gentle words of consolation. He told him to return to Hastināpura and to comfort his father and Gāndhārī, who would surely be overpowered by unbearable grief. Yuyutsu bowed to Yudhiṣṭhira and left the tent. Mounting his chariot he left at once, making his way to Hastināpura along the moonlit forest paths.
In one huge section of the royal tent the Pāṇḍavas found the immense wealth Duryodhana had brought from Hastināpura. Gold, silver, jewels, pearls, rich ornaments, blankets and skins lay in heaps on the rugged floor. After loading the wealth onto their chariots, the Pāṇḍavas rested for a while on the many silk-covered couches in the tent.
As the evening wore on, Kṛṣṇa said to Yudhiṣṭhira, “O King, in accord with sacred tradition, you and your brothers should remain here for the first night of victory. The rest of the army may return to our camp.”
Agreeing, Yudhiṣṭhira told his men to return to camp and take rest, while he and his brothers remained. After the warriors had left, the Pāṇḍava spoke again with Kṛṣṇa. He wanted Kṛṣṇa to be the first among his party to meet Gāndhārī in Hastināpura. Yudhiṣṭhira feared her ascetic powers. Revealing his anxiety, he said, “When the pious queen hears how Bhīma slew her son, she will surely release the fire of her anger. She could destroy the three worlds with her accumulated ascetic powers. That blessed lady is always engaged in severe austerities. I fear she will reduce us to ashes when she learns what has happened. O Keśava, I think only You will be capable of pacifying her. Eternal and possessed of unfading glories, You are the creator and destroyer of everything. With reasonable arguments, O Madhava, You should remove her anger.”
Hearing his anxious request, Kṛṣṇa turned to Dāruka and said, “Prepare My chariot.” Then He left for the city. Arriving at sunrise, Kṛṣṇa went straight to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s palace, where He first saw Vyāsadeva. He immediately offered His prostrated obeisances, clasping the ṛṣi’s feet, and then went with him into Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s chamber. The blind king sat silent with Gāndhārī by his side. Having been announced by Vyāsadeva, Kṛṣṇa went over and took Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s hand. Kṛṣṇa wept openly for some time without saying anything.
Then Kṛṣṇa washed His eyes and face with cool water fetched by a servant. Still holding onto Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s hand, He said gently, “O Bharata monarch, you know everything past and future. You are well aware of the course of time. All that is brought into being will again be destroyed in due course. This no man can change. O King, out of respect for you the Pāṇḍavas tried repeatedly to make peace in order to prevent this destruction. The virtuous Yudhiṣṭhira tolerated all kinds of suffering, even going into exile and living in concealment. He and his brothers endured all kinds of miseries, as if helpless, hoping that peace would be maintained.”
Kṛṣṇa looked around Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s chamber. The first rays of the sun were shining through the lattices, picking out the numerous empty seats around the hall. Curls of frankincense smoke were caught in the bright beams of light. From outside in the palace gardens the sounds of various birds could be heard. The sweet sounds contrasted with the rising and falling cries of women in the palace’s inner apartments, wailing for their slain husbands and sons.
Seated at the king’s side, Kṛṣṇa continued. “Remembering all this and how you caused it, O mighty one, do not harbor ill feelings toward the Pāṇḍavas. You know of Yudhiṣṭhira’s devotion for you. He is consumed by grief, feeling himself responsible for the death of all his kinsmen. Out of shame he does not want to appear before you now, although he shares your sorrow.”
Kṛṣṇa looked across at the blindfolded Gāndhārī, addressing her softly. “O daughter of Suvala, O lady of excellent vows, hear what I say. There is no woman like you in the world. Do you recall how you reprimanded your sinful son when you told him that victory follows righteousness? He did not heed you. Now it has come to pass, exactly as you said. Knowing all this, O auspicious queen, you should not grieve. Do not curse the Pāṇḍavas. Let not your heart be bent toward their destruction. Surely with your angry eyes you could annihilate the entire world, if you so desired.”
Tears flowed from under the silk wrapper around Gāndhārī’s eyes. She remained silent, unable to find her voice. Finally, she said, “What You have said is true, O Keśava. My mind is unhinged by grief, but on hearing Your words I am pacified. O Janārdana, this old monarch has no more sons. You and the sons of Pāṇḍu are now his only refuge.”
Gāndhārī buried her face in a cloth and wept aloud. Kṛṣṇa consoled her and her husband, speaking wisdom from the Vedas. After spending some time with them, He rose and said, “I will come to see you again. Pray grant Me leave now to return to the Pāṇḍavas.”
Both Dhṛtarāṣṭra and the queen offered Him their respects and gave Him permission to leave. Kṛṣṇa then left the chamber and met Dāruka, ordering him to carry Him back to the Pāṇḍavas’ camp. Watched by thousands of cheering citizens who had heard of His arrival, Kṛṣṇa went swiftly out of the northern gate and back to Kurukṣetra.
After the Pāṇḍavas had left Duryodhana, the three surviving Kauravas came out of hiding and went to see the fallen prince. He looked like a gigantic sal tree felled by a storm. Covered in blood and breathing heavily, he was obviously in pain. All around him carnivorous beasts ranged like men seeking wealth from a king. His brow was contracted by furrows of rage, and his eyes were red with anger.
Finding their king in that condition, the three warriors got down quickly from their chariots and ran over to him. They cried out and fell to the ground by his side. Leaning on his elbows, Duryodhana half raised a hand in greeting.
Aśvatthāmā knelt in front of him with tears streaming down his face. “Truly there is nothing permanent in this world, O King, since we see you lying here on the cold earth, covered with dust. You who issued commands to all the earth’s rulers are now reduced to this pitiable plight. Alas, where are Dushashana, Śakuni and Karṇa? What has happened? Surely it is difficult to know the ways of Yamarāja, the lord of karma, since you, O mighty emperor, have been brought to such a state.”
All three men cried and rolled on the ground. The war had taken a terrible toll on the world’s kṣatriyas. Now the great Kuru leader was himself destroyed. Clearly he was close to death. The war was over. As the detachment and callousness born of battle left them, the awful consequences of the long conflict struck home. They were the only survivors of the Kuru army. Most of their relatives and friends had been slain. How could they continue to live? What would they say to their women?
Aśvatthāmā continued. “Alas, this great king who would trample on the heads of all other kings now eats dust. Witness the reverses time brings. Where is your pure white umbrella, O King? Where are the yak-tail whisks and the countless servants? Where is your immense army? Without doubt the prosperity of all mortals is unstable, since you, who were equal to Indra, are now in this miserable condition.”
Grimacing in pain, Duryodhana rolled onto his side. Lifting his head from the ground he replied in a strained voice, “All living beings are subject to death. The Creator has ordained it. Death has now come to me, before all of you. By good fortune I have been killed in battle while I fought without showing my back. Struck down by a low blow from Bhīma’s mace, I was finally killed by deceit. By good luck you three have survived. Do not grieve for me. If the Vedas are at all authoritative, then I have attained the blissful regions. Destiny is all-powerful. In accordance with my fate I lie here, deprived of opulence. Leave me be. Soon I will embrace death and rise up to the heavens.”
Duryodhana’s head fell back and he sighed heavily. He thought of Kṛṣṇa. There could be no doubt that He was a powerful personality of some sort. Only by His power and contrivances had the Pāṇḍavas been successful. Duryodhana wondered again if He might actually be the Supreme Lord. If that were true, then His partiality toward the Pāṇḍavas surely seemed unbecoming. It was hard to understand.
A spasm of pain wracked his body and he cried out. Tears flowed down his face as he slumped to the ground.
Aśvatthāmā ground his teeth and stared into the distance. Still furious about the way his father had been killed, he was even further incensed to hear that Bhīma had slain Duryodhana with an unfair blow. Breathing heavily, his eyes red with anger, he declared, “Listen to my words, O King, which I swear by truth itself and by all my acts of religion. Today, in Kṛṣṇa’s presence, I will dispatch the Pāṇḍavas to Yamarāja’s abode. Grant me your permission, O lord.”
Smiling through his pain, Duryodhana said, “O Kṛpa, quickly fetch me a pot of water. O preceptor, appoint Droṇa’s son commander-in-chief of our army. Let the hostilities end with the death of our enemies.”
Saying, “So be it,” Kṛpa went to the lake and brought a pot of water. After a short ceremony, Duryodhana installed Aśvatthāmā as the Kaurava commander. He roared and mounted his chariot.
Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā blew their conches and climbed onto their chariots. They knew that victory against the Pāṇḍavas was unlikely, but death at their hands would be preferable to living after the annihilation of the other warriors.
Leaving the dying Duryodhana where he lay, the three warriors rode south through the darkness, their hearts aching with sorrow. They soon reached a spot close to the Pāṇḍavas’ camp. Entering a copse of trees, they dismounted and discussed their strategy. All three were exhausted and they slumped beneath the spreading boughs of a banyan tree. They could hear the sounds of the Pāṇḍava army’s celebrations. Deciding to challenge the warriors after sunrise, they said their evening prayers and lay down to sleep under the tree.
Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā soon feel asleep, but Aśvatthāmā was too angry to sleep. He stared up at the branches of the banyan silhouetted against the moon. The sounds of bats and owls filled the air. Aśvatthāmā tossed and turned, his mind filled with thoughts of revenge. As he looked up he could see the dark bodies of thousands of crows sleeping on the tree. Suddenly, a great owl swooped down from the sky, its green eyes flashing and its talons extended. It descended onto the branches of the tree and began silently killing the crows. In minutes it had slain many of the birds, which fell to the earth near Aśvatthāmā. In fear the other crows rose up, squawking and beating their wings as they fled.
Aśvatthāmā began to reflect. Surely this was a sign from destiny. What better way to deal with a large number of foes than to catch them asleep? Although keen to fight, there was little chance he and his two companions would overpower the Pāṇḍavas. But he had promised to kill them. Although it was sinful to kill sleeping men, it would nevertheless be an appropriate end for them since they themselves had resorted to so much deceit and trickery during the war. If there was to be any chance of success, there was no alternative but to attack them while they slept, their weapons put aside and believing their enemies defeated.
Determining to go at once into the Pāṇḍavas’ camp, Aśvatthāmā woke up the other two men. They sat up and shook off their sleep, listening as Aśvatthāmā explained his intentions. When he had finished speaking, they sat silently, filled with shame and unable to reply.
Seeing this, Aśvatthāmā defended his plan. “We should not hesitate. Duryodhana has been slain unfairly, as was my father and the Kuru grandsire. The Pāṇḍavas have not hesitated to use unfair or wicked tactics. What need have we to discuss this further? We are now the only survivors among the Kauravas. If we do not adopt cunning, then we too will follow our comrades to Death’s abode. Roaring in joy and beating their victory drums, the Pāṇḍavas have fallen into the embrace of sleep. This is our only chance to defeat them. What do you say, O heroic men?”
Kṛpa shook his head slowly. “Two factors influence the outcome of all acts: endeavor and destiny. Without both there is no success. A man who does not work but who depends on destiny alone will be ruined. Sometimes, however, despite one’s best endeavor, destiny delivers only adverse results. O Brahmin, we have tried our best and we have not been successful. It is therefore clear that we are under the influence of adverse destiny. The foolish Duryodhana, moved only by covetousness, acted without regard for virtue or the advice of his elders. Thus he has met with calamity and we, his followers, have sunk into sorrow. In my view, our best course now is to seek the shelter and advice of others. Let us go to Hastināpura and speak to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Vidura. They will offer us wise counsel.”
Aśvatthāmā slapped his leg. He looked down at the slain crows littering the ground. Overcome by anger and grief, he could not accept Kṛpa’s advice. He stood and paced back and forth, his hand clenching his sword hilt. His voice was cold and emotionless. “The understandings of different men inevitably differ. Everyone believes his own opinion to be right and that of others who differ to be mistaken. Even then the understanding of a man changes with changing circumstances. It is always difficult to ascertain one’s best course. Therefore, by listening to wisdom and then acting in accord with one’s own understanding of virtue, one should make his determination. I am of the firm opinion that my plan is compatible with our duty as kṣatriyas. We should show our enemies no mercy. We must destroy them by any means.”
Aśvatthāmā made it clear that he would carry out his plan, with or without the assistance of his colleagues. His voice rose. “Like Indra killing the Dānavas, I will range among the Pañchālas and Pāṇḍavas. Ruthlessly cutting them down, I will pay the debt I owe my father. Today the Pāṇḍavas will follow the path he has taken and the path of all the other heroes they so treacherously killed. I will then be happy, considering myself to have done my duty.”
Seeing Aśvatthāmā’s determination, Kṛpa replied, “By good luck do we see you resolute. Clearly you cannot be dissuaded. With your heart bent on vengeance I do not think even Indra could withstand you in battle. Therefore, let us await the dawn and then ride out for an encounter with the Pāṇḍavas. Kṛtavarmā and I will accompany you. For now, though, take off your armor and rest. Refreshed and renewed, you will surely conquer the enemy in honest warfare. There is no need to adopt mean tactics which will only incur the censure of all men.”
Aśvatthāmā dismissed Kṛpa’s suggestion. His mind was fixed on his dark plan. There was no question of waiting until morning. Rousing his sleeping horses, he said, “My heart is afflicted with desire and my mind with thoughts of vengeance. How can I sleep? Thinking of my father’s death, I cannot find peace. Indeed, I will not rest until Dṛṣṭadyumna has paid the full price for his heinous act. O twice-born one, how can a person like me even live while that Pañchāla prince still breathes? How can any of us rest while the king cries in agony, his thighs broken by the wicked Bhīma? We will not be able to gain victory on the battlefield against the Pāṇḍavas, protected as they are by Kṛṣṇa. Let us kill them as they sleep. This is the only way we will achieve our cherished end.”
Kṛpa watched with dismay as Aśvatthāmā yoked his horses to his chariot. His face was set in hard lines, picked out by the dancing rays of moonlight coming through the banyan’s branches. Kṛpa tried again to dissuade Droṇa’s son.
“Dear nephew, think hard before you do this. Only a sinful person would even contemplate what you propose. Have you lost sight of righteousness? Surely one who does not control his senses cannot understand morality, even if he serves learned superiors, just as a wooden spoon cannot taste the soup. A humble man, however, with his senses in check, can immediately understand his duties when he serves his elders, just like the tongue tasting the soup. As your well-wisher, I am trying to restrain you from something that will result only in your condemnation and which will leave you repenting afterwards. You are celebrated in this world as a great warrior. Do not destroy your good reputation. Do not sink into a limitless hell by killing sleeping men, who are as good as dead already. Fight fairly and win everlasting fame. We will help you without doubt. This is my opinion, O mighty-armed one.”
Aśvatthāmā mounted his chariot and looked down at Kṛpa. “What you say is true, O uncle, but in my view it is fitting that the Pāṇḍavas meet such an end. They have acted heinously themselves and now deserve no mercy. I cannot stand the thought of Duryodhana lying in agony, nor of the wicked Pañchālas sleeping in peace after the sinful slaughter of my father. Having killed those vile men, I do not care if I am born as a worm or an insect in my next birth. You cannot frustrate my resolution. I am going--with or without you.”
Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā looked at each other and shook their heads. They could not stop him. It seemed as if destiny had ordained that the final act of the war would be played out that night. They were the only surviving Kauravas and Aśvatthāmā was their commander. Considering this, both men finally decided to accompany him. If there was to be a fight, then it was their duty to assist him. They had already committed themselves to Duryodhana’s cause, killing countless warriors on the enemy’s side. There was no point now in abandoning the fight when the Kauravas’ last hope depended upon them. Resigned, they yoked their chariots and followed Aśvatthāmā, who had by this time already driven away.
As he approached the camp’s northern gate, Aśvatthāmā saw before him a strange being with a blood-soaked tiger skin wrapped around his loins. His upper garment was a black deerskin, and he had a large snake draped around his shoulders as a sacred thread. Around his biceps he wore two snakes as armlets, and in his hands he held fierce-looking weapons. His mouth seemed ablaze, and in his fearful face he had a hundred eyes.
Seeing the terrible being, Aśvatthāmā, who was beyond fear, raised his bow and shot numerous celestial weapons at him; but the being absorbed them all and stood unaffected. Aśvatthāmā released a long steel dart that flew like a blazing comet toward the being, only to shatter into pieces when it struck him. Droṇa’s son then hurled his scimitar and then his mace, but those weapons were also absorbed into the being’s body.
Having exhausted his weapons, Aśvatthāmā saw that the being was still standing before him. He sensed it was Śiva, whom he had worshipped throughout his life. Only that unlimited deity could have withstood his most powerful attack. Aśvatthāmā threw down his weapons and jumped from his chariot. Trembling, he knelt before the god. Surely he should have heeded Kṛpa’s admonition. Now the powerful Mahadeva, no doubt protecting the Pāṇḍavas on Kṛṣṇa’s order, would kill him for his sinful intentions.
Bowing his head to the ground, Aśvatthāmā offered numerous prayers to the powerful divinity. After praying and supplicating Śiva for some time, Śiva spoke in a thunderous voice. “O child, all through the war I have protected Pāṇḍu’s sons. Out of my love for Kṛṣṇa, I am always inclined to His worshippers. Now the Pāṇḍava warriors are being assailed by Time. They have carried out the desires and plan of supreme Providence, freeing the world of its great burden. Now their own destined end is near. O son of Droṇa, it is ordained that you will be the instrument of their destruction. I will empower you. Take this sword and use it to slay the remaining Pāṇḍava troops.”
Śiva held out a great sword, which shone brilliantly and had a handle set with bright gems. After handing the sword to Aśvatthāmā, he vanished from the spot.
Suddenly, Aśvatthāmā felt himself infused with tremendous energy. His body seemed to burn with power and his eyes glowed. As he remounted his chariot and moved toward the entrance of the Pāṇḍavas’ camp, both Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā caught up with him. Aśvatthāmā was overjoyed to see them joining him. Without telling them of the episode with Śiva, which had almost seemed to be a dream, he said, “O heroes, it is good that you have remembered your duties. We will now end the conflict by slaying the wicked Pāṇḍavas. I will enter the camp and range about like Yamarāja himself. You two should remain outside. If anyone tries to escape, slay them.”
After the plan had been agreed upon, Aśvatthāmā went quietly toward the camp. Clutching Śiva’s effulgent sword, he got down from his chariot and leapt over the surrounding wall. Guided by signs, he stealthily made his way to Dṛṣṭadyumna’s tent. The whole camp was silent and still, the exhausted warriors sunk in sleep.
Aśvatthāmā carefully entered Dṛṣṭadyumna’s tent and saw him lying in sleep on a rich silken bed. Moving swiftly, Aśvatthāmā kicked him. Dṛṣṭadyumna awoke and sat up. Aśvatthāmā caught him by the hair and dragged him from the bed, still kicking his head and chest.
Dṛṣṭadyumna, surprised and still half-asleep, was unable to overpower his aggressor. Aśvatthāmā threw him to the ground and stamped on his neck. Dṛṣṭadyumna tore at his attacker with his nails and cried out, “O Aśvatthāmā, kill me with a weapon. Let me thus, through you, reach the blessed regions reserved for those who die in battle.”
Aśvatthāmā laughed hideously. “O wretch, there is no bliss for those who kill their preceptors. Nor do you deserve a warrior’s death. I will slay you like the animal you are.”
Aśvatthāmā repeatedly stamped on Dṛṣṭadyumna with his heel, killing him mercilessly. Hearing the Pañchāla prince’s cries, the guards and women who were in the tent came running.
Aśvatthāmā left the tent quickly, looking for the Pāṇḍavas themselves. Coming next to a large tent close to Dṛṣṭadyumna’s, he guessed he had found them. The tent was decorated with numerous flags and garlands and had the finest of golden chariots standing nearby. Aśvatthāmā entered and, going into the inner section of the tent, saw five warriors asleep next to one another.
Aśvatthāmā felt a surge of joy. Here were the brothers! Raising his sword, he brought it down on the first of the five men and killed him with one stroke. He then similarly killed the other four before anyone awoke.
Outside the tent he could hear the clamor of the warriors looking for him. He rushed out with his fearful sword raised high, roaring like an infuriated lion. Seeing him advance like Death personified with his sword dripping blood, the warriors fell back in fear. Aśvatthāmā ran at them and slaughtered them as a lion kills deer in the forest.
Quickly putting on their armor, other kṣatriyas came out of their tents and surrounded Aśvatthāmā. Charged with Śiva’s power, however, and filled with his own wrath, Aśvatthāmā quickly slew them. He rushed into the next tent and found Uttamaujas just rising from bed in surprise at the clamor outside. Aśvatthāmā ran over and kicked him, killing him in the same way as he had killed Dṛṣṭadyumna.
Aśvatthāmā then encountered Yudhamanyu, who rushed at him whirling a mace. Yudhamanyu struck Aśvatthāmā full on the chest, but Droṇa’s son was not affected. Seizing his assailant, he threw him to the ground and killed him with powerful kicks and punches.
Numerous other warriors attacked Aśvatthāmā, but they were all savagely slain. Relentlessly hacking at the Pāṇḍava troops with his celestial sword, he slew many while they lay on their beds and hundreds of others who tried to resist him with weapons. Possessed by a frenzy of anger and bloodlust, he moved through the camp killing every warrior he would encounter.
As the piteous cries of the women filled the air, Aśvatthāmā went swiftly through the encampment, leaving a trail of death behind him. Caught unawares and shocked by his intensity and power, none among the Pāṇḍava forces could resist him. Covered in blood and screaming out his battle cry, he seemed like the mighty Yamarāja bent on killing all creatures.
Aśvatthāmā slew all of the surviving warriors. Like an elephant crushing lotuses in a lake, he moved about with his flashing sword, resisting all attempts to check him. Many invisible Rākṣasas flew around the camp, filled with joy to see so many corpses pouring forth fresh blood. Their terrible cries resounded and mixed with the frightful howls of thousands of jackals.
Horses and elephants, terror-stricken, ran about wildly. Confused warriors came out of their quarters and looked around in the darkness to see what was happening. Seeing Aśvatthāmā whirling his bloodied sword, many of them mounted horses and sped toward the camp’s gates. Others ran on foot, trying to escape. As the men left the camp, Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā met them and killed them. Having no weapons, with dishevelled hair and garments and crying in fear, they were cruelly butchered even as they fled crying for mercy.
Kṛpa and Kṛtavarmā, abandoning their shame, killed every last man they found. They then set fire to the tents. Men dashed about in confusion and terror and were cut down ruthlessly by the three Kaurava warriors. Calling out for the Pāṇḍavas, they fell to the earth, cut to pieces by the Kauravas’ weapons.
As twilight approached, Aśvatthāmā, seeing that no warriors had survived his rampage, decided to leave. Drenched in blood, and with his sword seeming like a grotesque extension of his arm, he appeared dreadful. Having slaughtered all the Pañchāla and Pāṇḍava troops, he felt he had avenged his father’s death.
Again the camp was silent. The women and the few servants who had not been killed were struck dumb with grief and terror. They hid themselves as Droṇa’s son left again by the northern gate. His two companions were waiting for him. When they informed him that no one had escaped, he praised them.
After mounting his chariot, Aśvatthāmā considered how best to inform Duryodhana. He wanted to cheer the defeated prince before he died, but Duryodhana would hardly be able to believe that the Pāṇḍavas and all their troops had been slain. Aśvatthāmā thought he should show him the Pāṇḍavas’ heads. That would convince him. He rode swiftly back into the camp. Going quickly into the tent where the five dead brothers lay, he took out his sword to sever their heads. The first light of dawn was entering the tent and, as he approached the bodies, he realized with dismay that they were not the Pāṇḍavas at all. These were Draupadī’s five sons. The Pāṇḍavas must not even have been present, since no warrior in the camp had escaped.
Aśvatthāmā’s sword dropped to his side. Deeply disappointed, he wondered what to do. After some thought he decided to take the five heads anyway and convince Duryodhana that they were in fact the Pāṇḍavas. At least he could bring some happiness to the fallen Kuru leader before he died. He took the five heads and placed them on his chariot, then drove out of the camp toward Duryodhana. The sun had just risen as his party reached him.
The three men saw Duryodhana lying surrounded by carnivorous beasts. He was pale and clearly on the verge of death. With difficulty he scared away the wolves and hyenas that kept coming up to him. Aśvatthāmā leapt down from his chariot. After chasing the beasts away, he knelt before Duryodhana. Kṛpa also got down and stood by the dying prince’s side. He addressed him in a sorrowful voice.
“Surely nothing is difficult for destiny to achieve. See how this once great king now lies here. He who would walk on the heads of all other kings now lies in the dust, struck down by the foe and bathed in blood. His golden mace, so dear to him, lies by his side like a faithful wife by the side of her husband. He who was formerly attended by Brahmins seeking wealth is now attended by vicious beasts and birds, seeking to eat his flesh. Witness the reverses brought about by time.”
Aśvatthāmā spoke more joyfully, telling Duryodhana how he had slaughtered the Pāṇḍavas and their warriors. “I have killed them all. See here the heads of the five brothers, O King.”
As Aśvatthāmā climbed onto his chariot to fetch the heads, Duryodhana opened his eyes and sat up, leaning on his elbows. “O son of Droṇa, you have accomplished what not even Bhīṣma, Karṇa, or even your own father could achieve.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “This has filled me with happiness. I will go now to the heavens where we will all meet again.”
Aśvatthāmā came down from his chariot, holding the five heads by the hair. He placed them by Duryodhana’s side and said, “Here are your sworn enemies, O King.”
Duryodhana reached over and felt the heads. He found it hard to believe that they could be the Pāṇḍavas. They looked like them, but perhaps they were their sons. Duryodhana knew how to tell the difference. He squeezed the skulls with his powerful hands, exerting the last of his strength. As he did so, the heads collapsed. He could understand that these were the heads of the Pāṇḍavas’ teenage sons.
Duryodhana fell to the ground with a sigh. “These are Draupadī’s sons, O Brahmin, and not the Pāṇḍavas. The heads of those five heroes are as hard as iron, but I have easily crushed these heads even in my weakened condition. Alas, what a terrible act you have performed! These boys were the future hope of the Kuru house. Now everything is lost.”
Duryodhana lay lamenting, his eyes closed in pain. Although he hated the Pāṇḍavas, he was not pleased to see their sons murdered. Who now would carry on what was, after all, his own family line? All his own brothers were dead. Now by killing Draupadī’s sons, Aśvatthāmā had practically ended the Kuru dynasty.
Gasping, “Alas, alas,” Duryodhana gave up his life. His head slumped to the side as his last breath came out. The three Kauravas cried out in distress. Seeing that he had died in acute disappointment rather than the joy for which he had hoped, Aśvatthāmā immediately felt remorse.
After gazing with tear-filled eyes at the king, the three men built a large funeral pyre. Placing Duryodhana’s body on it, they recited prayers and carried out his last rites, sprinkling his body with sacred water fetched from the Ganges. They then set light to the pyre and wailed in grief as the fire consumed him. When the flames expired, Kṛpa gathered up the last remains of the body and carried them to the river, placing them in the water while chanting Vedic mantras.
Having completed the rituals, the three warriors mounted their chariots and set off in silence toward Hastināpura.