Abhimanyu, the son of Arjun & Subhadra is known for two things: 1. His incomplete knowledge of the Chakravyuh, which cost him his life and 2. His valour which saved the day for the Pandavs in Kurukshetra. Here’s the story for you to decide – to be or not to be Abhimanyu.
THE BACKGROUND: Subhadra was pregnant when one night, Arjun was describing various battle strategies to her. Arjun spoke of many popular formations, their objectives, advantages and shortcomings, ways to breach them and so on. Subhadra listened to Arjun as he was talking about Chakravyuh, the concentric battle formation. One of the toughest, the Chakravyuh was almost invincible. Only a handful in that era knew how to deal with it. Arjun elaborately described its seven circular layers of infantry and cavalry so arranged that the warrior trying to break into the formation had to breach all seven levels to enter the same. Then, the warrior had to breakout of the same from the other end, navigating the same seven layers on the way out. He explained how the battle got fiercer layer after layer. Every consequent layer was manned by a warrior more powerful than the previous one. Arjun had only intricately described the way of successfully breaking into the Chakravyuh and reaching the centre of the formation when Subhadra slept off. Having no audience, Arjun didn’t explain the way to come out of the formation. Subhadra wasn’t alone in listening to all that Arjun had said. Their child, still in his mother’s womb, was also listening. Every word Arjun spoke, every detail of the dreaded battle formation and the ways to enter the same were heard and understood by the yet to come. The son born was named Abhimanyu and since the conversation between in his parents was left halfway, he only had incomplete knowledge of breaching the Chakravyuh. While he could successfully enter, he didn’t know the way out. Abhimanyu got trained in martial arts by his uncle Krishna and Kritverma, the commander of the Dwarka army and was ranked a Maharathi by the time he was in his teens, becoming the youngest general with that rank, going to Kurukshetra. Abhimanyu’s skill and valour were well know and he was entrusted with leading one of the seven Pandav battalions. However, his knowledge of Chakravyuh remained where it was at birth – incomplete.
The one thing that was left incomplete, turned to be fatal: some skills are innate, and some acquired but all skills need to be upgraded and improvised. So as to why Abhimanyu couldn’t or didn’t complete is knowledge of breaking out of the Chakravyuh is unknown. While Arjun was away during all of Abhimanyu’s childhood, he had Krishna watching over him and Krishna was one of the few who knew how to tackle that formation. Abhimanyu was only 16 when he entered Kurukshetra which probably is the most plausible reason why he couldn’t learn the other half. What’s famously known is that his valour couldn’t compensate for his incomplete knowledge. The Chakravyuh became Abhimanyu’s nemesis.
THE SITUATION AND A CALCULATED RISK: It was day thirteen in battleground Kurukshetra. The Kaurav think tank had managed to usher Arjun miles away from Yudhisthir, so their commander in chief Drona could capture the latter, dealing instant defeat to the Pandavs. Having made many futile attempts to capture Yudhisthir, Drona didn’t want to lose another chance. He instructed the Kaurav army to assemble for the Chakravyuh formation. Drona did so, thinking that the only ones (Krishna and Arjun) who could breach the Chakravyuh, weren’t anywhere near and didn’t have an inkling of Drona’s plan. Thinking that an inept manoeuvre by the Pandav army to tackle the concentric formation would be thwarted easily, Drona was confident of succeeding. To be doubly sure, Drona deployed the best warriors to lead the forces at every single layer of the formation. Jayadrath, the king of Sindhu was deployed at the entry and Drona stationed himself with Dushasan and Duryodhan in the centre of the formation. The likes of Karn, Shalya, Ashwatthama, Kritverma, Shakuni, Kripa, in between. Having personally inspected the formation in detail and satisfied with the same, Drona blew his conch to announce the attack. The sound was amplified as each of the Kaurav warriors blew their conches along with the war cries of hundreds of thousands of Kaurav soldiers. Having read the enemy formation, Yudhisthir, flanked by his generals, felt helpless. None of them could deal with the threat ahead and not responding to the same was not an option. Seeing Yudhisthir and other generals perplexed, Abhimanyu came forward. He told Yudhisthir that while breaching the Chakravyuh wasn’t an issue, he didn’t know how to get out of it. Yudhisthir sighed in relief realising he did have an option. After some deliberation, the Pandavs decided to let Abhimanyu lead the charge and assured him that as he breached layer after layer of the Kaurav infantry, the other generals would use the opportunity to enter the formation and ensure he wasn’t alone. Reassured, Abhimanyu carried a huge stockpile of arrows, extra bows, spears and swords and charged towards the formation.
In spite of knowing he didn’t know it all, he didn’t shy away from duty: Abhimanyu was aware of his capability (or the lack of it) when he volunteered to take the Chakravyuh challenge head-on. He did highlight his shortcoming and was very open and forthright about his limitation. This helped the Pandav think-tank arrive at a strategy. Abhimanyu could have easily stood silent and let the others take a call. But brave and raring to go that he was, he chose to volunteer. Yudhisthir was aware and feared that Abhimanyu had signed-up for something could be fatal, but he let him because he didn’t have a choice. Abhimanyu was assured that he wouldn’t be left alone.
THE TWO FRONTS: Jayadrath was surprised to see Abhimanyu leading the Pandav counter-attack. Abhimanyu’s heroics on the battlefield were known and Jayadrath didn’t take him lightly. After a fierce duel, Abhimanyu had managed to defeat Jayadrath and entered the Chakravyuh. The other Pandav warriors charged at the point from where Abhimanyu had entered the formation. Yudhisthir, Bheem, Nakul, Sahadev, Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki among others wanted to enter the formation before the Kaurav forces could regroup so they could follow the lead from Abhimanyu and move behind him to ensure he remains supported. Before the Pandav plan could succeed, Jayadrath was back, standing guard to the formation. One after the other, Jayadrath managed to engage and defeat each of the Pandavs. Neither could, on that day, stand the fury of Jayadrath’s arrows. After a long and difficult penance, Jayadrath had earned a boon from Shiva. The boon gave him the power to defeat all the Pandavs barring Arjun. The boon had manifested and Jayadrath was too powerful for the Pandavs to defeat. As time passed, Yudhisthir’s tension grew fearing how a young Abhimanyu would fight all alone in the Chakravyuh. Inside the formation, Abhimanyu was fighting as gods would. One after the other, he had breached all the layers of the formation. On his way, he had killed thousands of Kaurav warriors across ranks and created panic in the enemy lines with his firepower. Having slain or defeated anyone and everyone who had come in his way, Abhimanyu’s chariot stood right in the centre of the formation with all the Kaurav generals giving him an angry glare. Duryodhan, Dushasan & Karn were particularly furious as Abhimanyu had killed many of their sons. Drona & Kripa were also furious as yet another plan to capture Yudhisthir had failed and this time at hands of a juvenile but they were also filled with pride, seeing Arjun’s son was no less than his father, neither in skill nor in valour. It was midday. Krishna & Arjun were far away, the other Pandavs were still engaged by Jayadrath and Abhimanyu was left all alone!
Plans fail: Plans can fail and on bad days, the best of plans fail. Jayadrath was no match for the mighty Pandavs, even without Arjun. But that day belonged to Jayadrath’s boon and no one could do anything about it. The obstacle came from nowhere, was not anticipated, couldn’t be dealt with on time and it ended up ensuring that the Pandav strategy failed as no support could be sent to help Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu was too brave to even think about a retreat and the Kauravs were too menacing to let go of an opportunity to deal a strong blow to the Pandavs.
THE GRUESOME END: Seeing an array of Kaurav generals in the battlefield would make even the bravest sweat. But not Abhimanyu. Skilled, brave and valiant, this son of Arjun & disciple of Krishna blew his conch challenging the Kaurav side. The twang from his bow sent chills across the Kaurav army. One by one, each of the Kaurav generals fought with Abhimanyu. Drona, Kripa, Karn, Shalya, Ashwatthama, Kritverma, Shakuni, Duryodhan & Dushasan. None could withstand Abhimanyu’s wrath. Drona had his blow broken into pieces, Kripa lost his armour, Ashwatthama was at the receiving end of a barrage of sharp arrows. Karn was defeated multiple times and Duryodhan was rendered unconscious. Dushasan, Shalya and Kritverma couldn’t stand Abhimanyu’s blows and had to retreat. Some had their chariot broken, some had their charioteers killed and some exhausted their arrows. A teenager had engaged the mighty warriors all afternoon, was unstoppable and had brought down the mighty Kaurav army on its knees. All alone. Wounded and tired, he continued as the day came closer to end. Having realized that his mighty plan had already failed and none of his generals could single handedly defeat Abhimanyu, Duryodhan instructed his generals to attack – all at once. Seeing arrows being fired and spears & maces being flung at him simultaneously from all directions, Abhimanyu reminded the Kauravs of the one-to-one rule of battle. Duryodhan refused to abide by any such rule and the onslaught continued. Abhimanyu lost his chariot and his bow in no time and was on his feet armed with a sword and a shield. This is when seven of the Kaurav generals – Karn, Shalya, Ashwatthama, Kritverma, Shakuni, Duryodhan & Dushasan pounced on Abhimanyu as Drona and Kripa stood on their chariots in disbelief. Facing attacks from all sides, Abhimanyu roared like a lion and scared the onlooking Kaurav soldiers, but he soon had his sword and shield broken. He bled profusely as the Kaurav swords and spears slit his body. In a desperate move to protect himself, he picked a wheel of his chariot and tried to thwart the attacks. This didn’t work for long and Abhimanyu had multiple swords pierce through his body. Roars had turned into whimpers before Abhimanyu breathed his last. The Kauravs were overjoyed and danced around Abhimanyu’s mortal remains. Abhimanyu lost is life but saved the day for the Pandavs.
Glory comes at a cost: Abhimanyu’s incomplete knowledge of the Chakravyuh did cost him his life. But the way he stood up to the occasion and showed initiative got him a name in the list of the bravest. The way he fought, the wounds he caused and the havoc he created earned him respect even from his adversaries. Abhimanyu’s heroics made Arjun and Krishna proud. Though he didn’t come alive, he did save Yudhisthir that day, just like his father would have. Abhimanyu’s glory came at the cost of his life and the glory is what the warriors of that era cherished the most!