Bhimasena and Ashwathama meet several times during the 18 day war in the Mahabharata. Bhima ends up with an upper hand every time in those duels. However, the most important fight between the two of them takes place on the 16th day of the war. This was immediately after the coronation of Karna as the leader of the Kaurava army.
The full force of Ashwathama
The reason for the duel on the morning of the 16th day being the most important one is due to a special assurance given by Ashwathama to Sri Krishna, during the latter’s visit as the ambassador just prior to the war. Ashwathama assures Sri Krishna that he would not fight the pandavas with full force until his father, the great warrior Drona, was alive.
This particular meeting of Sri Krishna and Ashwathama is not present in any of the extant recensions of the Mahabharata. However, the same has been revealed by Sri Madhwacharya in his Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya.
संस्थाप्य तं भगवान् द्रौणये च रहोsवदन्मित्रभावं प्रुथाजैः |
यावत्पितुर्मरणं सोsपि मैत्रीं वव्रे पार्थैस्तं च विसृज्य कृष्णः || MBTN – Ch 24 – 78 ||
“Having made (Karna) stop there itself, Krishna advised the son of Ashwathama in private about being on friendly terms with the Pandavas. He replied that as long as his father were alive, he would be friendly (with the Pandavas)”
The occurrence of this meeting, and the presence of shlokas narrating them in the original recensions of Mahabharata is proven by the fact that the incident is narrated in the Vikramarjunavijaya, the Kannada Mahabharata by the great kavi Pampa.
“Trailokyaguru gurutanoojanam kaiyyam pididaramaneyam poramattu kapataprapanchadindaatanumam tanage maadi” || Ch 9 – 60 ||
Bhima and Ashwathama face each other
With his father having been felled, that too under contentious circumstances, the fury of Ashwathama had no limit. He sought out Bhimasena, the most powerful warrior on the Pandava side, and challenged him to a duel.
Both of them started off the battle with an excellent show with their bows and arrows. Ashwathama chose ninety special arrows and pierced Bhima all over his body. The numerous arrows and the wounds due to them only made Bhima appear like the glorious Sun covered in his own rays. In return, Bhima choose a thousand arrows and covered Ashwathama in them.
The two of them then started directing arrows at each other’s forehead.
After that Ashwathama and Bhima rained a hundred arrows on each other. The arrows did not have any subduing effect on them.
ततः शरशतैद्रौणिरर्दयामास पाण्डवं |
न चैनं कम्पयामास मातरिश्वेव पर्वतं || Karna – 15 – 9 ||
“Even though the son of Drona hit the Pandava with a hundred arrows, he did not flinch a bit just a like a mountain that is unaffected by a tornado“
तथैव पाण्डवो युद्धे द्रौणिं शरशतैः शितैः |
नाकम्पयत संहृष्टो वार्योघ इव पर्वतं || Karna – 15 – 10 ||
“Similarly, although the Pandava hit the son of Drona with a hundred arrows, he (Ashwathama) did not move a bit just like a mountain unaffected by a flood“
Ashwathama started showering arrows at Bhima and at the same time started moving in a circular fashion around his chariot. Circling around the enemy was a sign of victory. Hence Bhima had no toleration for it. He retaliated with thousands of arrows and in turn started circling Ashwathama’s chariot. In this way, both the warriors kept moving around each other creating mandalas.
In this way, the battle went on for a full muhurtha (48 minutes).
Bhima’s use of Astras
Bhimasena was a follower of the Bhagavata Dharma. Possessing immense natural strength and talent, he did not believe in the use of astras – divine weapons – during battle, although he did possess the knowledge of their usage. In order that the world got to know about his expertise with them (in addition to the skill of using shastras), Sri Krishna had ordered him to use divine astras on two occassions. The first occassion was during a battle with the rakshasa Alambusa, when he used the Tvashtrastra. The second occasion was this battle with Ashwathama.
After being unable to cause any harm to Bhima with regular arrows, Ashwathama sought to harm him through the use of astras. But Bhima responded with his own astras and neutralized all of Ashwathama’s divine weapons.
ततौ द्रौणेर्महास्त्राणि प्रादुश्चक्रे महारथः |
तान्यस्त्रैरेव समरे प्रतिजघ्ने स पाण्डवः || Karna – Ch 15 – 23-24 ||
“That maharatha (Ashwathama) released numerous maha-astras. The son of Pandu stopped all of them with his own astras”
Praise from the devatas.
This great duel between Ashwathama and Bhima was being witnessed by all celestial beings. The siddhas who were present in the sky started showering praises on both of them. They declared that such a battle would never ever occur again.
“What wonderful strength these two possess! Oh! What to talk of their competence with astras! Their knowledge and skill – all of them are beyond description!”
“The two of them stand here as the ones who will end the world. They are like two rudras, like two suryas!” – Thus stated the siddhas.
They emphatically declared that no other battle in the past or future came close to being even one-sixteenth as great as this one.
अति युद्धानि सर्वाणि युद्धमेतदवर्तत |
सर्वयुद्धानि चैतस्य कलां नार्हन्ति षोडशीम् || Karna – Ch 15 – 30 ||
“This battle exceeds all other duels. No battle can be equal to even one-sixteenth of this one”
The devatas, siddhas, maharshis and other divine beings all hailed the two of them saying “sadhu mahabahu drauni – sadhu mahabahu bhima!”
Desirous of killing each other, the two of them intensified their attacks. They hit each other’s chariot and charioteer.
Both of them, simultaneously, picked up two great arrows and hurled it at each other. The intensity of the arrows was such that both of them fell down in the middle of their chariots.
Ashwathama could not sustain the impact of that great arrow and fell unconscious. His charioteer realized the danger that his master was in, and drove away leaving the battlefield (thus conceding defeat).
ततस्तु सारथिर्ज्ञात्वा द्रोणपुत्रमचेतनम् |
अपोवाह रणाद् राजन् सर्वक्षत्रस्य पश्यतः || Karna – Ch 15 – 47 ||
“Having realized that the son of Drona had dropped down unconscious, like a lifeless body, his charioteer drove him outside of the battlefield even as all the kshatriyas were watching”
तत्रैव पाण्डवं राजन् विह्वलन्तं मुहुर्मुहुः |
अपोवाह रथेनाजौ विशोकः शत्रुतापनम् || Karna – Ch 15 – 47 ||
“Similarly, Vishoka (the charioteer of Bhima) realized that Bhima, the one who repeatedly causes trouble to the enemies, was trembling (due to the effect of the arrow), took him to another region of the battlefield”
Thus the great battle of Bhimasena and Ashwathama ended with the son of Drona having to leave the battlefield leading to yet another victory for the son of Pandu.