Crime and punishment is the central theme of Ashwatthama’s story in the Mahabharata. By all accounts, Ashwatthama was a fine young man —confident, modest and fair-minded. The son of the great teacher, Drona, he grew up in the privileged company of princes. When war was declared, he found himself on the wrong side.
He fights with integrity and in the end accepts the defeat of the Kauravas. He is outraged at the deceitful death of his father, however, and vows revenge. He sets fire to the victorious, sleeping armies of the Pandavas. His night-time massacre is a deed so repulsive that it turns the mood of the epic from martial triumphalism to dark, stoic resignation.
When Draupadi, Pandavas’ queen, learns that all her children died in the night massacre, she cries for vengeance. When Ashwatthama is finally captured, the Pandavas debate over the right punishment for his horrendous crime. Death would be too kind, they agree. Krishna ultimately pronounces the sentence: ‘For three thousand years you will wander on this earth, alone, and invisible, stinking of blood and pus.’
Indians have long felt ambivalent about the death penalty; hence, very few executions have taken place since Independence. Most of the world has abolished it — only 36 have not and this includes India and the US. The UN resolution says that it ‘undermines human dignity’. But I am not convinced. I would argue that retaining the death penalty, in fact, enhances human dignity.
The most serious argument for its abolition is that it is almost impossible to implement it fairly; why have we not used it, for instance, against the ghastly crimes of the Naxalites? Whether Krishna’s sentence meets the test of proportionality, the Mahabharata has the right idea — keeping a person alive, brooding and suffering over his deed, is a far greater punishment than death.
(From : gurcharandas.blogspot.in)