November 19, 2013

Ashwatthama's Revenge


The character of Aswatthama in the Mahabharata has always fascinated me. It was interesting to read the character analysis of Aswatthama in the book 'The Difficulty of Being Good' by Gurcharan Das. Though the other chapters in the book were equally captivating, I found the one on "Ashwatthama's Revenge" to be of high calibre and of immense importance in the present societal scenario(s).

A quick intro to Aswatthama:
- Son of Dronacharya and Grandson of sage Bharadwaja; and hence a Brahmin(and not a kshatriya)
- During Mahabharata, Yudhishthira tells a lie that Ashwatthama is dead['Ashwathama hathaha kunjaraha' -- In Sanskrit "Ashwathama hathaha" means 'ashwathama is dead' and "kunjaraha" means 'elephant'. Yudhishthira utters 'kunjaraha' slowly so that Drona cannot hear it] and this causes Drona to drop his arms(as his son has been killed) and descend his chariot and meditate. Dhristadhyumna decapitates Drona then.
- Actual fact : An elephant called Ashwatthama was slain by Bhima. Yudhishthira had to tell this lie(at the instruction of Krishna) for there was no other way to defeat Drona. Angered by this lie which led to his father's death, Aswatthama swore to kill the Pandavas. At night, he spots an owl ambushing crows sleeping on the trees. He gets an idea and decides to attack the Panadava's camp at night; he kills all the children of the Pandavas who were sleeping inside the tents. It is said that Ashwatthama had the blessings of Mahadeva(Shiva) and hence this was possible.
- Arjuna and Ashwatthama are the only two to have the knowledge of invoking a Brahmastra; this was taught to them by Drona. Drona did not teach Ashwatthama to withdraw the weapon as he felt that a brahmin would never have the use of invoking the weapon.
- When Pandavas came searching for Ashwatthama, post the massacre of their children, the latter invoked the Brahmastra and Arjuna did too. The clash of the two weapons was suitably stopped by Vyasa(as it would have led to total annihilation), but as Ashwatthama did not have the knowledge to withdraw his weapon, he directed it towards the womb of Uttara(Abhimanyu's wife) who was pregnant - to end the dynasty completely.
- Ashwatthama was subjected to a curse(his Prarabdha karma).
- Curse of Immortality : "he will carry the burden of all people's sins on his shoulders and will roam alone like a ghost without getting any love and courtesy for 3000 years. He will have neither any hospitality nor any accommodation; He will be in total isolation from mankind and society; His body will suffer from a host of incurable diseases forming sores and ulcers that would never heal"

This post is by no means my attempt to understand and research Ashwatthama better, but is to highlight some of the notes from the chapter which is to be used for further analysis.

Notes:
From 'The Difficulty of Being Good' by Gurcharan Das on the subject of "Ashwatthama's Revenge"
  • legitimacy of retributive justice
  • He is intent on revenge though he is aware of of its terrible karmic consequences
  Truly, if killing my father's murderers,
  The Panchalas, as they sleep in the night, means
  Rebirth for me as a worm or a moth, I shall
  Suffer it gladly.
  • The Mahabharata has been called 'an epic of revenge' and Ashwathama happens to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time
  • Vengeance has the power of an instinct. The 'lust of vengeance' and the 'thirst of revenge' are so powerful that they rival all other human needs.
  • vindictiveness damages the core of the whole being
  • If the good person suffers, then the bad person should suffer even more : this is an idea that seems embedded in the human psyche. Consciously one denies it, of course, and proclaims piously, 'I'm not the sort of person who holds grudges'. Yet one unconsciously applauds when the villain 'gets what he deserves'. Wanting to punish a villain or seeing him punished is ubiquitous in literature, movies and politics. 
  • retribution is useful because it brings a 'profound sense of moral equilibrium impelling us to demand that people pay for the harm that they have done to others'
  • punishment on the grounds of social control: it provides an incentive for a normal person to comply with laws, helps reduce crime and thus maximizes human welfare
  • according to Jean Hampton : the aim of punishment is not to avenge wrongdoing or to inflict pain and injury on the offender but 'to annul the offender's claim of superiority'
  • doctrine of proportionality is consistent with human intuition - Exodus 21:22-25
  • The rod of Punishment is to applied differential and according to Law, not haphazardly; Punishment may be censure, imprisonment, gold, expulsion, severing limb from body, or execution. Banishment, death and the various corporal afflictions should not be imposed for any trivial reason. - Mahabharata XII.122.40-42
  • Forgiveness is the strength of the virtuous
  • to fight is easy, but to forgive is difficult. To be patient is not to be weak, to seek peace is always the wiser course.
  We who were the conquerors have at last
  been conquered by the foe...
  How can we call it victory when we are the ..
  Vanquished
    - Mahabharata X.10.9
  • forbearance vs forgiveness : while forgiveness  suggests a degree of 'self-righteousness', forbearance points one in the direction of the classical virtue of magnanimity. The magnanimous person is forward-looking and does not differ the 'victimization; complex of the forgiving person.
  • Nicomachean Ethics
  • The word 'jehad' is rarely found in the Quran but is referred to 199 times in the Hadith, which was written 2 centuries after the death of the Prophet.  The Wahabis interpreted Jehad to mean a holy war, even though it had actually mean 'striving'; a Mujahideen was originally not a holy warrior but one who strives.
I want to point out that revenge is an extremely dangerous weapon, and request you not to form any kind of opinions based on the notes above. 'Revenge' and 'Punishment' are to be understood and analyzed in different contexts and are extremely complex topics; the path of 'peace' and 'love' is to be always followed. Am in the process of understanding Mahabharata and its characters based on commentaries and perspectives from different resources and it always keeps puzzling me and leads me to explore and research more on this topic.
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