In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes.
This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 43: Drona Creates the Chakravyuha. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
On the thirteenth morning, the sight of the constantly rotating maze that is swirling at him across the field fills Yudhishthir with a measure of disquiet. A slew of Pandava warriors approach the Chakra Vyuha and try to engage with it, but they are beaten back in a trice.
The besieged king calls, therefore, for a meeting. In it, he asks Abhimanyu to lead them in their defense. ‘With Arjuna and Krishna away, Son,’ he says, ‘you are the only warrior among us who has the knowledge and the courage to check the preceptor’s wiles.
‘May Arjuna not return from vanquishing the Samshaptakas tonight only to find that his brothers have surrendered all advantage to the foe. Lead us into battle today, Youthful One, so that we might hope to hold our own.’
Abhimanyu bows to his father’s brother. ‘I shall break this array, King, and make a passage for the rest of you to follow. I have been taught by my father the method of smiting the Chakra Vyuha. But I have not yet learnt methods to be employed to get out of it, in case I am trapped inside.’
‘Well!’ Yudhishthir replies. ‘We will see to it that you are not. We will follow the track that you create, and widen the fissures in the Kaurava army until the entire formation is decimated.’
Bhimasena promises to personally follow the young prince. ‘With Dhrishtadyumna and his Panchalas, with Satyaki and his Vrishnis, and with the entire force of the Prabhadrakas fighting by my side, I shall keep the array from re-forming after you have broken it down.’
Abhimanyu uses a strangely fatalistic metaphor now to describe his mission. ‘I will enter this dense form of soldiers like a rage-filled insect entering a blazing fire.’ And addressing Sumitra, his charioteer, he proceeds toward Drona.
‘Heavy is the burden, O Prince,’ says Sumitra, heeding his master’s commands but turning around to warn him nevertheless, ‘that the Pandavas have placed upon your shoulders today.
‘Dronacharya is a master strategist; he has fought in many wars, and commands an impressive fleet of weapons. On the other hand, you are inexperienced, used to a life of luxury. Are you certain that you should do this?’
Abhimanyu laughs. ‘Who is this Drona? Who are the Kauravas? Even if Sakra himself faces me on top of his Airavata, O Sumitra, I will fight him gladly for the sake of my uncle Krishna and my father Arjuna.
‘I feel no anxiety today, just an overwhelming sense of lightness. So lead me to these great heroes. Let me show you – and them – that I am no less.’
Like a lion cub assailing a herd of elephants, Abhimanyu unleashes himself upon the many warriors of the Kaurava army, and his standard – with the picture of a Karnikara tree emblazoned upon it – gleamed like a firefly in the dead of the night.
The skirmish that takes place on the outer periphery, with Abhimanyu attempting to break into the formation, resembles the eddy that one can see at the point where Ganga meets the sea.
Scores of elephants, horses and chariots rush to plug the hole that Saubhadra (‘son of Subhadra’) causes in their ranks. In no time at all, therefore, the prince finds himself surrounded by enemy soldiers, but certain that Bhimasena and the others would follow soon, he presses on.
Displaying astonishing lightness of hand and quickness of foot, he leaves thousands of men and beasts fallen about him as he relentlessly pursues the centre of that formation.
Seeing that Abhimanyu is laying to waste his army, Duryodhana sets out to engage him in battle, and Drona is quick to send support. ‘Abhimanyu is today fighting in the image of his father,’ he says. ‘Protect Duryodhana against him.’
And Ashwatthama, Kripa, Karna, Kritavarma, Shakuni, Brihadvala, Shalya, Bhurishravas, Paurava and Vrishasena start on their chariots.
An Unstoppable Force
Abhimanyu is everywhere at once this morning, and he engages in fierce battles with a number of people. Here are a few feats of valour that he accomplishes:
- Abhimanyu ruthlessly attacks a brother of Shalya, cuts off the head of his enemy’s charioteer, breaks open his chariot, fells his standard, shatters his bow, and after stripping him of armour, cuts off his head.
- A large Madra force rushes toward Abhimanyu at this moment in order to avenge the death of their prince. Using weapons that he has procured from Krishna and Arjuna, he holds them back with minimum fuss.
- Hundreds of thousands of whetted arrows leave his bow, furnished with golden wings. Modest, wrathful, restrained, and exceedingly handsome, the son of Subhadra wields his bow drawn to a circle, and shafts of varying sizes and shapes seem to flow out of him as if they were fish in a fast-flowing river.
- Just a bit of trivia: the text mentions here six different kinds of arrows that Abhimanyu shoots: Kshurupras (arrows as sharp as razors), Vatsadantas (arrows shaped like a calf’s tooth), Vipathas (long arrows with hefty bodies), Narachas (long, narrows ones), Ardhachandrabhais (half-moon-shaped shafts), and Anjalikas (broad-headed arrows).
- Drona is overcome by admiration for the young man’s skill. He confides to Kripacharya that Abhimanyu is reminding everyone of Arjuna, that the very gods have left their abodes to watch him display his valour.
- A battle develops with Karna now. When the younger brother of Karna (maybe another of Adiratha’s sons) arrives to support his brother, Abhimanyu wastes no time in beheading him. Karna flees the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Nakula, Sahadeva, Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki and Bhimasena are trying their best to follow Abhimanyu into the Chakra Vyuha. But their paths are obstructed by the Saindhava king Jayadratha.
During the exile of the Pandavas, Jayadratha happens to insult Draupadi and earns a half-shaven head as punishment in the hands of Bhima and Arjuna. He is told to go back to the Sindhu capital and parade the streets, announcing that he was enslaved by the Pandavas.
In order to overcome this slight, Jayadratha pleases Lord Shiva with elaborate austerities and earns from him a boon that on one day in battle, he will prove to be superior to all the Pandavas combined, with the exception of Arjuna.
This is that one day.
He leads a regiment of Sindhu horses and chariots toward where Yudhishthir’s army is fighting. He defends the breach in the formation while other Kaurava soldiers scramble to fill it.
Under a white umbrella and banner, with yak-tails fanning him as he marches ahead of his division, he looks like the moon surrounded by stars.
The Matsyas, the Panchalas, the Kaikeyas, the Srinjayas, the Somakas and the Pandavas exert themselves vigorously, all at once, but none of them can bear the wrath of Jayadratha.
What this effectively means is that Abhimanyu is left alone deep inside the Chakra Vyuha, battling the Kaurava ranks on his own. From this point on, his death is only a matter of time.
Six Atirathas Beaten
With the realization that he is now on his own, Abhimanyu fights with renewed vigour. He dispatches an entire division of the Madra army with his arrows, and then gets into a battle with Lakshmana, Duryodhana’s favourite son.
Abhimanyu allows him to draw nearer, and once he is within shooting range, unleashes a flood of arrows at him, striking him in the two arms and the chest.
‘While your kinsmen watch us, Cousin,’ he calls out, ‘look well upon the world as closely as you can, for I will send you to the abode of Yama very soon.’ True to his word, with a broad-headed arrow resembling a hissing snake, he pierces the neck of Lakshmana, beheading him with one clean swipe.
Kripa, Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama, Brihadvala and Kritavarma – the six of them converge upon the young Pandava prince.
He begins to pick them off one by one. Drona, Kritavarma and Kripa feel the full force of his hundreds of arrows. He fells the steeds yoked to Kripa’s chariot, and also succeeds in killing his rear guards.
A mighty battle takes place between him and Ashwatthama now, with the latter drawing first blood by covering Abhimanyu with twenty five short arrows.
But the son of Arjuna comes roaring back with twenty three gold-winged shafts aimed straight at the chest of his enemy. Karna is also similarly warded off, and Kritavarma too with a bunch of fourteen well-aimed ones.
With all the atirathas of the Kuru army wounded, matters reach a breaking point of desperation in which Drona hatches a simple but effective plan to stop Abhimanyu.
A Plan is Hatched
Tired and hurt, Karna comes to speak to Drona. ‘That son of Arjuna defeats us all, O Preceptor,’ he says, even as in the distance, Abhimanyu tears into Ashwaketu, the prince of Magadha. ‘What can we do to defeat him?’
Drona looks out at the fighting Saubhadra, now in the process of dispatching the son of Kritavarma, the prince of Martikavati, to the abode of Yama. He turns to Karna with a resigned smile.
‘Abhimanyu is young. His mail is impenetrable. I had once taught Arjuna the art of creating defensive armour. It looks like Falguna has taught his son well.
‘See if you can, Karna, cut off his bow, bowstring, the reins of his horses, and the horses themselves from behind his chariot. Let us first force him onto his two feet. Let us deprive him of his weapon, and then we will see how long he will last.’
Eagerly following Drona’s words, Karna approaches Abhimanyu’s chariot from the flank and breaks his bow. Kritavarma kills his horses while Kripa accounts for the two rear guards.
The prince leaps onto the ground, therefore, and sees that six atirathas are speeding toward him with their bows upraised. Undaunted, he picks up a sword and shield and prepares to defend himself.
Drona cuts off the sword at the hilt, and Karna shatters the shield with a clutch of arrows. Cornered and left without a chariot, Abhimanyu now picks up a fallen chariot wheel, holding it above his head like Vasudeva would hold his Sudarshana Chakra.
The six atirathas now converge upon the young prince and eventually break the wheel in his hands. The son of Arjuna then picks up a mace, and whirling it menacingly like his uncle Bhimasena, rushes with it toward the chariot of Ashwatthama.
The latter has just enough time to leap off his vehicle and run away to safety before Abhimanyu destroys the banner, the horses yoked to the chariot and the weapons contained within it.
He then turns on the army of Kalikeya, one of Shakuni’s brothers, and kills seventy seven Gandharas. The son of Duhsasana is next in the firing line, losing his chariot and horses to the badly wounded Pandava hero.
A mace fight breaks out between the two, a long, extended one at the end of which both of them drop to the ground at the same time. The son of Duhsasana, though, is the first among the two to recover.
He goes over to where Abhimanyu is on the point of rising and reaching for his weapon, and lands a heavy blow on the crown of Saubhadra’s head.
For a moment a deathly silence seems to descend upon the battlefield, because no one is certain that Abhimanyu will not wake up again. It takes a minute or two for reality to sink in, and the Kaurava atirathas heave a sigh of relief.
The Kaurava soldiers surround the body of the young prince and watch, as if reminding themselves of the utter carnage they had just witnessed. The region surrounding the son of Arjuna is reminiscent of a forest that had been consumed by a fire that had just been put out.
After the realization sets in, the Kaurava warriors celebrate with loud cheers, hearing which the Pandava forces outside the formation guess at what must have happened.
‘Alas,’ they tell one another, ‘the son of the middle Pandava lies lifeless deep in the midst of the enemy ranks. He has been slain while fighting on his own against six mighty warriors, and the act, we think, was an unrighteous one.’
All desire to fight leaves the Pandava soldiers now, and they break their own formation to retreat. Yudhishthir tries in vain to rally them.
‘Let us not grieve the death of a hero, my men!’ he says. ‘Abhimanyu has fought with courage, and he has killed many a great warrior. He has attained heaven with his deeds. We must not mourn his death, we must celebrate it!’
But the sun approaches the horizon around the same time, and even the Kauravas are too exhausted to go on. The battle is called off for the day, and both armies return to their respective encampments.
The death of Abhimanyu is the inflection point around which the Mahabharata war accelerates toward its end. From here on, Arjuna pulls out all stops to avenge his beloved son.
Before that, though, there is a discussion in the Pandava camp on who is responsible for Jayadratha’s death. We will see more of that in the next episode.
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