Krishna and Arjuna soon catch up with Bheema but are unable to dissuade him from going after Ashwatthama. They decide to accompany him and look for Ashwatthama. And the moment Ashwatthama sees Bheema in combat readiness and also the others, he picks up a blade of grass, invokes a powerful astra and directs it to destroy the pandavas! The blade of grass moves spewing fire and looks capable of destroying the three worlds! Krishna who had anticipated this, urges Arjuna to release an equally powerful astra in reply. Arjuna invokes a divyaastra with a prayer, 'Let the acharya putra be safe, let me and my brothers be blessed, let this astra cool the other astra!' and releases it. The released astra moves speedily, fiery and also capable of destroying the three worlds.
Vyasa urges Ashwatthama, 'Do not do this! Arjuna had released the astra to counter your astra and has withdrawn it. You should reciprocate. Give up the jewel on your head and in exchange they will let you go!' Ashwatthama replies, 'I will give them the jewel, but I cannot withdraw. It will enter the embryo of pandava children and kill them'. Krishna asks, 'At least spare the child Uttarae is carrying!' But Ashwatthama refuses. Krishna says, 'Not to worry, the embroyo will die but will come alive again and will live long! But you will face the consequence of शिशुहत्या (infanticide). You will wander alone in deserted lands and forests for 3000 years. But Parikshit will be the student of Kripacharya and rule Kurudesha for sixty years.' Ashwatthama takes the jewel from his head, hands it over and walks away in a black mood.
Krishna and pandavas return swiftly and Bheema gives the jewel to Draupadi, 'Here is the precious stone you wanted. I got it by defeating the man who killed your children. Duryodhana is dead, the blood of Dushyasana has been drunk and you have been avenged'. And consoles her with, 'Ashwatthama has lost his power and respect as a brahmin and what remains is just his body.'
Draupadi agrees, 'I have been avenged. As a guruputra Ashwatthama is equal in status to a guru. Let Maharaja take the precious stone!'. Yudhisthira in order to please his wife and also as a respect for his guru takes the stone and wears it on his head.
It finally seems to be the end of the war! But there are still many more parvas in the epic narration. It is tempting to stop here, but my friend Raghu tells me that विष्णुसहस्रनामन् (thousand names of Vishnu) is part of the Mahabharta in Shantiparva which comes later.. In a way it is intriguing! We had Bhagvad Gita at the beginning of the war and later a prayer which is recited daily by many . In fact, Tara and Gayathri recited this on the banks of Gangaji at Rishikesh. I remember my father used to recite this regularly.
I had hoped to have a greater insight into our hindu psyche in the story of Mahabharata. It is rather straightforward, if one accepts our mythology in toto. There are gods, heavens and hell. At one time gods and humans did mingle. Even had children with humans. Gods are still in heaven and have super powers.
Brahmins were revered and khsatriyas were men of valor who protected and followed their dharma. The merchants, I guess, went about commerce as practically as they do now. I imagine that the farmers and other artisans toiled as ever. I imagine the farmers never struck work in those days. It is practically the same now!
We also learn that we are responsible for our actions and pay for bad actions which are not considered dharma. There is a system of accounting which carries forward the history of our actions to the many cycles of birth and rebirth. I must mention that in the recent retreat we attended in Rishikesh, I learnt that in this accounting a good action does not necessarily cancel a bad action! The results of bad action and that of the good action will manifest separately in due time as ordained. This raised a lot of questions in my mind. What about the belief that a dip in ganga washes away our sins? What about those who donate a percentage of their ill-gotten gains to temples. How would they react to this नियम precept?
Coming back to the story, it is significant that while khsatriyas as a rule were ready to die in a war, Ashwatthama being a brahmin sees no merit in it and prefers to wander the earth for many many years.
As we read the story we are told in so many ways that Krishna planned the destruction of kshatriyas and used them as pawns in his grand design. He chose to save only five pandavas and the one still in the womb of Uttarae.