WHEN Aswatthama heard how Duryodhana lay mortally injured, and learnt the details of the combat, his righteous anger swelled like the sea. The deception, practised by the Pandavas in order to bring about his father's end, had been rankling in his mind.
Now, when he learnt how Duryodhana had been stricken down mortally against all rules of chivalry, he went to the spot where Duryodhana was lying and there took an oath that he would that night send the Pandavas to the abode of Yama.
Duryodhana, who was in the last physical agony of departing life, was transported with joy when he heard Aswatthama take this oath. He immediately ordered those who stood nearby to install Aswatthama as Supreme Commander of the Army with due ceremony and, when that was over, said to Him: "All my hopes are in you."
It was sunset and the forest was in utter darkness when under a big banian tree Kripacharya, Kritavarma and Aswatthama halted for rest. They were so greatly fatigued that Kripacharya and Kritavarma fell fast asleep as soon as they lay down.
But Aswatthama did not get sleep, for sorrow, indignation and hatred burnt within him. He was listening to the noises that the nocturnal birds and prowling beasts began to make as the night advanced. He was turning over in his mind how to execute his promise to Duryodhana.
On the branches of the banian tree, under which the three warriors were resting, hundreds of crows roosted. They were all quiet and asleep until a big owl came and began to attack the birds one after another and kill them. When Aswatthama saw the nocturnal bird of prey tear the helpless crows, he got an idea. The crows that could not see at night flew round and round helplessly and fell victims to the owl that attacked them violently.
"These wicked Pandavas and the Panchala that killed my father and all their supporters can easily be killed by us, if we surprise them when they are sleeping in their tents at night even as this owl is attacking these blind crows. Thus can I avenge the deeds of foul play they have practised on us. I am deeply indebted to this bird of prey from whom I have received the teaching. There is no offence in adopting plans to suit one's altered circumstances. If we can lawfully attack an enemy, when his army is tired or when his forces are scattered, why then should not we, who have lost our armies, attack our enemies when they are asleep? There can be nothing wrong in it. Indeed it is only thus that we can punish and defeat these Pandavas who have achieved successes through foul play. We have no other course open."
Aswatthama made up his mind and he immediately woke up Kripacharya and informed him of his plan. Kripacharya, who heard it, was astonished.
"This can never be," said he. "It is wholly wrong. To attack men who have retired to sleep, has never been done before. It would be an unprecedented crime against the laws of kshatriya conduct. Aswatthama, for whom are we fighting? The man for whose sake we joined in this war has been fatally wounded and his end has arrived. We have discharged our obligations most loyally. We fought our best for the greedy and wrongheaded Duryodhana but we failed irretrievably. There is no purpose now in our continuing the fight and it is folly to do so. Let us go to Dhritarashtra and the faultless Gandhari, and place ourselves at their disposal. Let us take counsel of wise Vidura also. They will tell us what lies before us to do."
When Kripacharya spoke thus, Aswatthama's grief and indignation increased and he spoke bitterly:
"Everyone feels sure that what he thinks is the only right and proper thing to do. One's understanding naturally limits one's vision. These Pandavas have been guilty of the foulest conduct. They killed my noble and trustful father through a lie. They have killed Duryodhana against the laws of chivalry. I have no doubt in my mind that what I propose to do is quite proper vengeance for all these foul deeds. It is only if I carry out this plan that I can possibly repay my debt to my king and to my father. I have decided on it and I do not propose to alter my plan. I am going tonight to the tents where they are sleeping having cast off their armor and there I will kill the Pandavas and Dhrishtadyumna while they are asleep."
Kripacharya was deeply grieved to hear Aswatthama speak thus: "You have attained a great name among men," he pleaded, "Your spotless character will by this be blemished, even like a milk-white cloth bespattered with blood. Never could it be right to kill sleeping men. Desist from this."
"Sir, what are you talking? These Pandavas butchered my father when he had thrown away all his weapons and had sat down in prayer. These men have breached the embankment of dharma and released the flood, and not a, drop of dharma is now left! Karna, who was on the ground putting right the wheel of his chariot, was murdered by these lawless rascals. Bhima has killed Duryodhana with a blow below the navel. What dharma has been left for us to follow? The Pandavas have, once for all, destroyed the wall of dharma. Why should we make research into law and chivalry when dealing with these ruffians who have attained successes by destroying both? If by killing the sleeping Panchalas, who butchered my great father, I may be doomed to rebirth in the body of a foul bird or of a wriggling worm, I do not care. I seek such a birth!"
Saying this and, without waiting for an answer, Aswatthama proceeded to harness his horses and get his chariot ready to start. When he was about to leave Kripacharya and Kritavarma cried: "Stop. What are you resolved upon doing, Aswatthama? We cannot approve of it, but neither can we desert you in your desperate enterprise. The path you are bent on treading, we shall also follow. The sin you are resolved upon, let us share also." So, they went along with him. Thus does evil grow! One transgression begets the next and thus evil grows from evil submerging righteousness. Evil flourishes on retaliation.
They reached the Pandava camp. Dhrishtadyumna had doffed his armor and was plunged in deep slumber in his tent. Aswatthama leapt on the sleeping warrior and, before he could put himself into a posture of defence, cruelly kicked him to death.
The same process was relentlessly repeated until all the Panchalas and all the sons of Draupadi were killed one by one when they were plunged in sleep in their tents.
After having done this deed, the like of which had never before been considered possible among kshatriyas, Kripacharya, Kritavarma and Aswatthama came out of the tents and set fire to the camp. When the fire spread, the sleeping soldiers were awakened and fled hither and thither in confusion, even like the crows on the banian tree under which they had rested in the forest, and they were mercilessly slaughtered by Aswatthama.
"We have done our duty," said Dronacharya's son. "Let us go and give the glad news to Duryodhana, if we can reach him, before he expires. Let him die pleased."
The three of them accordingly hurried to Duryodhana.