Abhimanyu: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero

Abhimanyu guide - Featured Image - Picture of a bull and sword icon, representing Abhimanyu

Abhimanyu is one of four sons of Arjuna, the third Pandava in the Mahabharata.

His mother is Subhadra who – as the sister of Balarama and Krishna – is the princess of Dwaraka, the impregnable fortress city built on the shores of the Western sea.

Abhimanyu plays a largely invisible part in the Mahabharata until the thirteenth day of the war, during which he takes on the might of the Kaurava army on his own. He penetrates a complex military formation called the Chakra Vyuha: the ‘wheel strategy’.

However, his reinforcements – comprised of Bhima, Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna among others – fail to follow him into the array. He gets trapped inside it, and because does not know the art of exiting the Chakra Vyuha, is killed.

Abhimanyu is only a boy of sixteen when he dies. His death becomes the most significant turning point in the war. More than anything, it hardens the heart of Arjuna, who had been fighting listlessly all this while.

When he learns of his son’s death, Arjuna vows to shed all his inhibitions – and not surprisingly, the fourteenth day becomes a bloodbath.

In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about Abhimanyu.

(For more Mahabharata character guides, please see: 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Never Cease to Amaze You.)

Contents

Birth of Abhimanyu

Abhimanyu is born to Arjuna and Subhadra during the Arjuna Vanavasa Parva. At the end of Arjuna’s twelve-year exile, he arrives at Dwaraka and stays there as Krishna’s special guest of honour.

During his stay, Krishna encourages him to carry Subhadra away by force without bothering to adopt any formal methods to win over her hand. Arjuna does so, and after a short period of strife, Balarama agrees to the match.

Subhadra thus becomes the third woman Arjuna marries during his exile. The other two are Ulupi and Chitrangada.

After his wedding to Subhadra, Arjuna stays at Dwaraka for a year longer, and by the time he returns to Hastinapur, Subhadra is already either heavily pregnant or has given birth to Abhimanyu.

Soon after his return, Arjuna has a son called Shrutakarma with Draupadi. That brings the number of Arjuna’s sons to four: Iravan with Ulupi, Babhruvahana with Chitrangada, Abhimanyu with Subhadra, and Shrutakarma with Draupadi in that order.

Abhimanyu is known to be sixteen years old during the war, so at the time of Arjuna’s departure on their exile – and assuming that a year passes after their return before the war begins – the boy is just two years old.

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Incarnation of Varchas

The divine frame for the Mahabharata is that all the significant gods of heaven decide to come down to Earth in order to combat the rising forces of evil. Toward this goal, Vishnu agrees to become incarnate as Krishna.

All the important celestials then proceed to contribute either their own energies or those of their sons to the cause. When it comes the turn of Soma, the moon god, he hesitates, saying that he loves his son Varchas so much that he cannot part with him.

Instead, he makes a suggestion. ‘Let my Varchas be parted from me for a mere sixteen years,’ he says. ‘He will make an appearance toward the very end of the long process over which all the forces of evil must be assembled before they’re destroyed.

‘Both Nara and Narayana (Arjuna and Krishna) will fight on the side of the good in this great battle, but there will come to pass one encounter in which neither Nara nor Narayana take any part. And my son will step into this void.

‘All of your portions will continue to fight to the best of your abilities, but Varchas will break a complex formation called the Chakra Vyuha, and he shall cause a full fourth of the hostile force to be eliminated on this single day.

‘He will pay for his valour with his life, and by the time the sun sets on this fateful event, he shall leave the land of men and return to me.

‘He will also beget one heroic son in his line, who shall continue the almost extinct Bharata race. So after the great cleansing is finished, he will ensure that the blood of the celestials will be present in the monarch that will follow.’

Abhimanyu, therefore, is also seen as the son of the moon god, Soma. His precise destiny is to burn incandescently on one fateful day at the end of a short life, and return to his father.

The ‘heroic son’ that Soma refers to is Parikshit, the son of Uttara and Abhimanyu who goes on to become king after Yudhishthir.

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Abhimanyu’s Early Years

After the Pandavas leave on their exile following an ill-fated dice game, Krishna takes responsibility of raising the Upapandavas and Abhimanyu at Dwaraka.

Abhimanyu is only two at this time, and all of the Upapandavas – with the exception of Shrutakarma – are older than him. At Dwaraka, Pradyumna, one of Krishna’s sons, becomes teacher and guide to the boys.

Understandably, the focus of the story at this point shifts to the Pandavas and how they’re faring. We know little about Abhimanyu’s progress as a young man.

From what follows later, however, we can surmise that Abhimanyu becomes the most heroic and skilled of the six young men in Krishna’s care. There are two possible explanations to this: one is that Abhimanyu – as the son of Arjuna – inherits his father’s natural endowments.

The other is that Pradyumna and Krishna may have applied some unconscious bias toward Abhimanyu because he is the son of Subhadra. At the back of Krishna’s mind, he would always known that Abhimanyu and the Upapandavas – in some possible political scenarios – may well end up being rivals.

Could it be, then, that Krishna instructed Pradyumna to give Abhimanyu special training that is kept away from the others?

This is admittedly speculation, but a plausible one.

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Relationship with Arjuna

Abhimanyu is often considered Arjuna’s favourite son. In all fairness, he does not have much competition: two of Arjuna’s sons, Iravan and Babhruvahana, never leave their kingdoms. The remaining prince, Shrutakarma, is born to Draupadi, a woman that Arjuna is compelled to share with his four brothers.

This means that just by the process of elimination, Abhimanyu is the one son that:

  • Arjuna has with a wife that is exclusively his, and:
  • Arjuna can meet regularly and bond with.

Also, there is the not-so-small matter of Abhimanyu being Arjuna’s link to Krishna and the Pandavas’ link to Dwaraka.

The fact that Abhimanyu is Arjuna’s favourite is borne out by the way in which he reacts to his sons’ deaths at different times in the story. When Iravan dies in the war, Arjuna is described as breaking down with grief, but he does not take any drastic steps.

At the end of the war, when it comes to his knowledge that Ashwatthama has killed the Upapandavas – Shrutakarma among them – again Arjuna does not react in any visible way.

But when Abhimanyu dies, Arjuna at once sheds all of his prior hesitations about fighting the war and takes an oath that leads to the bloodshed of the fourteenth day.

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When did Abhimanyu learn the Chakra Vyuha?

The question of exactly when Arjuna teaches Abhimanyu the art of entering the Chakra Vyuha is a difficult one. In the absence of any explicit mention in the story, we’re left with guesses.

If Arjuna has the opportunity to spend any length of undisturbed time with Abhimanyu, it is after his return from the exile. We have to conclude, therefore, that the teaching happened then.

However, we must also remember that both Krishna and Pradyumna are cited as being able to break open the Chakra Vyuha too. Could it be that it is they who taught Abhimanyu? But then, that raises the question of why they also did not – in all those years – teach him the art of exiting the formation.

The other possibility is that Arjuna taught his two-year-old son before he left on his exile. This is tough to believe, but in the world of the Mahabharata where children sometimes are wise beyond their years, one may consider this plausible.

In yet another twist, some accounts insist that Abhimanyu learns of the Chakra Vyuha while in Subhadra’s womb.

The story goes that Arjuna and Subhadra are talking to one another, and he is telling her about how to enter the Chakra Vyuha. Inside Subhadra’s growing belly, Abhimanyu is listening. But as Arjuna finishes the first part of his account, and is about to describe how to exit the array, he gets interrupted.

To add another layer to this twist, the source of the interruption is none other than Krishna. It is said that Krishna enters the room at the precise moment and drags Arjuna away, saying: ‘Why do you bore your wife with stories of battle strategy, Partha?’

Of all these, the most prosaic answer is that Arjuna taught Abhimanyu after his return from exile, just as the war is about to begin. This also explains why he did not have the time to complete his training.

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Marriage to Uttara

At the end of the Pandavas’ year of incognito – which they spend at the court of King Virata of Matsya – Arjuna is offered the hand of Uttara, Virata’s daughter, in marriage.

Arjuna politely refuses to marry the princess, saying that for an entire year he has taught her dance and has thus become her teacher. ‘It would be inappropriate for me to marry a girl who has seen me as her guru all this while,’ he says.

But it would also be inappropriate to turn down the possibility of building an important alliance with Matsya. So Arjuna counter-proposes that Uttara should marry Abhimanyu instead.

At the wedding of Uttara and Abhimanyu, after the guests have blessed the couple, talks begin in earnest about how the Pandavas could go about getting their kingdom back.

All their allies are present at this event: the Panchalas, the Vrishnis, and of course the Matsyans. Indeed, during the extended negotiations for peace, Yudhishthir operates out of Upaplavya, the capital of Matsya.

To the war effort, Virata contributes one full akshauhini of troops.

Abhimanyu’s marriage to Uttara is significant in yet another way. In the interval between their wedding and the beginning of the war, Uttara becomes pregnant. After the war is finished, she gives birth to a boy named Parikshit.

The war brings about extreme casualties. The Upapandavas are all dead. Abhimanyu is dead. The women of the Kuru household are rendered barren by Ashwatthama’s Brahmastra. With these factors in play, Parikshit becomes the sole heir to the throne.

At the end of this thirty-six reign following the Kurukshetra war, Yudhishthir passes the throne on to Parikshit.

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Sasirekha and Ghatotkacha

In a famous folktale that emerged in the south of India much after the Mahabharata has been written, Abhimanyu is part of an adventure that happens during the thirteenth year of the Pandavas’ exile.

In this story, Abhimanyu – about fourteen or fifteen years of age – falls in love with Sasirekha, one of Balarama’s daughters.

Balarama’s intention is to have Sasirekha marry Duryodhana’s son, Lakshmana. But Krishna prefers to strengthen the Dwaraka-Pandava alliance by secretly helping Abhimanyu secure the love of Sasirekha.

Krishna’s actions here are consistent with what he did with Arjuna and Subhadra all those years ago. This time, though, he makes use of the services of Ghatotkacha – the son of Bhima and Hidimbi.

The protagonist of the story is actually Ghatotkacha, who goes to Dwaraka in the garb of Sasirekha and ‘marries’ Lakshmana, while the real Sasirekha is transported to the forest where she is united with Abhimanyu.

This story is often performed as a play called Sasirekha Parinayam (‘Sasirekha’s Wedding’). While this is not part of the canonical text, it lends another dimension to Abhimanyu and his relationship with Ghatotkacha.

Sasirekha, alas, does not have any children with Abhimanyu. So her name is lost to the pages of history.

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The Youngest Atiratha

At the beginning of the war, when Duryodhana asks Bhishma to evaluate the rathas and atirathas in the two armies, Bhishma cites the Upapandavas and Abhimanyu as atirathas.

Despite this, the Upapandavas do not perform any great deeds during the war. This makes one wonder whether Bhishma was mistaken in assessing the sons of Draupadi. After all, he had had no opportunity to see them in action. He would have only relied on second-hand accounts to make this judgement.

He is not mistaken, however, with Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu proves himself to be an atiratha many times over with his exploits on the thirteenth day alone.

The warrior competing with Arjuna for the descriptor of ‘youngest atiratha’ is Shrutakarma, Arjuna’s son with Draupadi. If we believe Bhishma’s words that the Upapandavas are all atirathas, then Shrutakarma wins the title.

But if we apply some of our own judgement to events of the war, and note that Shrutakarma – as a boy of fourteen, after all – does nothing of note during the entire eighteen days, we may be tempted to name Abhimanyu the youngest atiratha in the war.

At the very least, we can safely say that Abhimanyu is the most significant of the young atirathas that participate in Kurukshetra.

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Drona’s Promise

The death of Abhimanyu on the thirteenth day is actually a culmination of a number of smaller events. The first of these is the fall of Bhishma and the appointment of Drona as the commander of Duryodhana’s army.

Duryodhana has suffered for ten days under Bhishma’s tepid leadership. Now he wishes that the acharya ups the tempo and fights without partiality for the Pandavas.

He asks Drona to bring Yudhishthir back alive as prisoner, so that he could play another game of dice with him and send the Pandavas away on another exile. Drona – while internally recoiling at the thought – promises his king that Yudhishthir will be captured.

This exchange happens on the eve of the eleventh day. On battlefield, however, despite Drona’s exertions, Yudhishthir remains elusive, protected ably by Arjuna.

Drona then tells Duryodhana that until Arjuna is neutralized or diverted from the main arena, Yudhishthir cannot be captured.

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The Samshaptakas

This paves the way for King Susharma and his Trigartas to take an oath that they will ‘either conquer or die’. They adopt the title of ‘Samshaptakas’.

The brief for the Samshaptakas is simple: keep Arjuna busy, and preferably away from battle so that Drona can capture Yudhishthir. On the twelfth day, this ploy almost works.

The Samshaptakas challenge Arjuna early on in the morning and lure him away to one edge of the battlefield. Meanwhile, Drona spins his web around Yudhishthir. He methodically reaches Yudhishthir and is about to land the decisive blow when Krishna brings Arjuna back for one final thrust at the enemy.

Arjuna rescues Yudhishthir right in the nick of time, just before sunset.

This leaves Drona and Duryodhana frustrated. At their post-battle meeting, Drona thunders: ‘Arjuna has to be kept away for the whole day, not for just one part of it!’

Duryodhana rails against Drona, once again blaming him for being soft on the Pandavas. Drona then takes the oath that on the thirteenth day, he will claim the life of one Pandava atiratha for certain.

The Samshaptakas renew their oath to divert Arjuna once again. Drona, for his part, creates the Chakra Vyuha.

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Chakra Vyuha

The actual shape of the Chakra Vyuha and the mechanics with which it operates are not very well known. The text does not describe the strategic nature of the array in any detail.

From the name, we can infer that it is shaped like a chariot-wheel. The outer rim is connected to the inner rim with ‘spokes’ made of soldiers, and the general consensus is that these spokes are in a constant state of rotation.

Some people have suggested that the Chakra Vyuha is actually a series of concentric circles which rotate in alternate directions. Imagine, if you will, a maze that is in constant motion.

In reality, the Chakra Vyuha is probably a much simpler affair compared to the strategic formations of modern – or even medieval – warfare. We have to remember that these formations had to be communicated to the army at large in a matter of hours, so they needed to be uncomplicated.

In any case, Drona creates the Chakra Vyuha with the intention of capturing Yudhishthir, because with Krishna and Arjuna away – he thinks – no one in the Pandava army has the capability of breaking the formation.

Of all the warriors on the Pandava side, Drona reasons, only Abhimanyu knows how to enter the Chakra Vyuha, but he can easily be managed. He is after all a boy.

What Drona does not account for is just how much destruction that ‘boy’ is going to unleash upon them the next day.

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Abhimanyu Trapped

On the thirteenth day, once again the Samshaptakas take Arjuna and Krishna away from the main events of the battlefield.

(This time, they do a more thorough job. They keep Krishna and Arjuna occupied for the entire day, as per Drona’s orders.)

Seeing the Chakra Vyuha looming menacingly in the distance, Yudhishthir knows that unless someone takes on the might of Drona, he may end up being captured and presented to Duryodhana by sundown.

He looks around him and spots only one warrior who has learned of the Chakra Vyuha, even if partially. He approaches Abhimanyu and entrusts him with the task of breaking open Drona’s formation.

Abhimanyu agrees enthusiastically. All the rest of the Pandava warriors pledge to follow the son of Arjuna closely, so that the breach in the Chakra Vyuha will be kept open. The idea is that Abhimanyu leads them in, and they will shatter the array from within.

There is no need, in other words, to know how to exit an array if you break it open from the inside.

However, what stands in their way is the possibility that after Abhimanyu enters the Chakra Vyuha, the Pandavas for some reason fail to follow through in their bid to provide him support. In that case, Abhimanyu will be trapped inside – and will probably die.

Bhima and Satyaki, though, are confident that this will not happen. Of the Kuru warriors guarding the entrance to the Chakra Vyuha, they see none powerful enough to hold back a combined thrust of all the Pandava heroes.

In all this analysis, they fail to contend with the brilliance of Jayadratha.

Taking advantage of a boon from Shiva, Jayadratha – the king of the Sindhus, husband to Dusshala the daughter of Dhritarashtra – ensures that the breach in Drona’s array caused by Abhimanyu does not become a chasm.

He holds fort like a mountain, and puts on a masterclass of defensive fighting against Bhima, Satyaki, Dhrishtadyumna and the other Pandavas. As a result, Abhimanyu ventures alone deep into the Chakra Vyuha.

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An Unstoppable Force

Once inside the Chakra Vyuha, and with the knowledge that he is cut off from the rest of the army, Abhimanyu knows that his time is limited. He is about to die.

He sheds all of his inhibitions therefore, and begins to fight like a man possessed, shooting at everyone and everything in sight. He uses all the divine weapons at his disposal to confound his enemies.

Of the battles he fights and wins on this day, three are worthy of mention:

  • He faces Karna and Karna’s younger brother (perhaps another son of Adiratha) at the same time in a duel, and kills the latter. Seeing this, Karna flees the battlefield.
  • He kills Lakshmana, the son of Duryodhana.
  • He fights against six atirathas at the same time, and defeats them all. And as they retreat, he obliterates their armies with a mixture of divine and earthly weapons.

This show of valour and skill impresses Drona. He says to Kripa: ‘Abhimanyu is emulating Arjuna today, and the very gods have left their abodes to watch him fight.’

But soon, matters reach a point of desperation for the Kuru army. Drona, remembering his role as the commander of the force, hatches a simple but effective plan to stop Abhimanyu.

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Death

Drona’s strategy is to first separate Abhimanyu from his chariot and his weapons. He employs Karna to slink behind Abhimanyu and to break his bow. Kritavarma kills the boy’s horses, and Kripa accounts for both of Abhimanyu’s rear-guards.

The prince is thus forced to leap onto the ground with a sword in hand. The six atirathas who had been defeated by him just a few minutes before now find their courage, and come roaring back to attack him.

Drona breaks Abhimanyu’s sword at the hilt with an arrow. His shield is shattered by Karna. Cornered and helpless, Abhimanyu picks up a fallen chariot-wheel and defends himself with it. He even manages to land a few blows on soldiers who venture near him.

In this moment, we’re told that Abhimanyu looks like Krishna himself, wielding the Sudarshana Chakra over his head.

But this is only a fleeting moment of bravery. The son of Duhsasana (unnamed) challenges Abhimanyu to a mace duel, and the exhausted Abhimanyu loses consciousness during it.

His opponent also falls, but wakes up before Abhimanyu. Just as Abhimanyu is stirring to get back up on his feet, the son of Duhsasana crushes his head with the mace.

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.

All desire to fight leaves the Pandava soldiers now, and they break their own formation to retreat.

The battle is called off for the day, and both armies return to their respective encampments.

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Aftermath

Abhimanyu’s death is the most significant event of the Mahabharata war, if only because it is the one incident that shakes Arjuna awake. All this while Arjuna has been fighting listlessly against Bhishma and Drona. But after Abhimanyu’s passing, Arjuna turns ruthless.

He still adheres to his vow of not using divine weapons, but he begins to flex his range of skills more purposefully.

When he learns of Abhimanyu’s death at the end of the thirteenth day – upon his return from fighting a whole day against the Samshaptakas – Arjuna decides that of all the people responsible, the one most deserving of punishment is Jayadratha.

So he takes a vow that he will kill Jayadratha by sundown the next day – or kill himself in case he fails to do so.

This is of course unfair to Jayadratha. The Saindhava king was only doing the job assigned him by Drona. And if he stretched himself to the very limits of his skill, he is to be applauded.

Also, if one were to objectively assess Abhimanyu’s death and look for ‘culprits’, surely Drona will be the prime suspect. It is he who designed the Chakra Vyuha. And it is he who put into motion the plan of killing Abhimanyu inside the formation.

Even though Arjuna may have known that, one cannot expect him – not even in the depths of grief – to take a vow to kill his own preceptor. So Jayadratha has to bear the brunt.

On the fourteenth day, Arjuna fulfils his vow – with plenty of help from Krishna – and nails his target. From here, the war takes on a redder, more pitiless hue. Before long, Drona will also pay his dues at the blade of Dhrishtadyumna’s sword.

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Fair or Unfair?

The killing of Abhimanyu is often derided as ‘unfair’. Satyaki especially uses this incident as an excuse to behead the meditating Bhurishrava on the fourteenth day. And Dhrishtadyumna uses Satyaki’s act as excuse to behead Drona on the fifteenth morning.

Indeed, Satyaki and Kritavarma – thirty six years later – have an argument on whether Abhimanyu or Bhurishrava was killed more unfairly. This quarrel becomes the seed for the civil war that destroys Dwaraka.

Three points are levelled against Drona and the Kauravas in the Abhimanyu case. Namely:

  • Abhimanyu is just a child. At sixteen, and as someone considered an atiratha, he is not a child when he is on the battlefield. If he is a child, he should have been at home with his mother. Drona’s job is to fight every man that the opposition puts in front of him.
  • Abhimanyu was attacked from behind. This is true, but by this time, Abhimanyu is already trapped deep inside the Kaurava ranks. In this scenario, you will receive attack from all sides because you’re surrounded.
  • They all fought Abhimanyu at the same time. This is true to an extent, but it is again a natural consequence of being trapped behind enemy ranks. Despite this, the final battle with the son of Duhsasana is one-on-one. None of the atirathas interfere in this until it finishes.

In fact, there is ample evidence that Abhimanyu is the first to break the code of just fighting on this day. After he is cut off from the rest of the army, he uses a number of divine weapons to destroy swathes and swathes of common soldiers.

He does not fight just the chariot-warriors on the Kuru army. Instead, he regularly breaks away from challenges to focus on eliminating as many fighting soldiers as he can.

This is not to criticise him; once he realized his time is up, he rightly took steps to magnify the damage he can cause. And in doing this, he flouted the rules of combat.

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Did Abhimanyu go to heaven?

A number of characters – Krishna in particular – repeatedly assure Arjuna that Abhimanyu has been given direct entry into heaven with the kind of death he has procured for himself.

In the final scene when Yudhishthir reaches heaven, Abhimanyu is mentioned among those present to welcome him. That means that the amount of merit that Abhimanyu has earned during his blitz on the Kurukshetra battlefield is long enough to surpass thirty six years in heaven.

Also, we know that Abhimanyu is the incarnation of Varchas, the son of Soma. After his death, therefore, his destiny is to return to heaven and to unite with the entity that is Varchas.

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Further Reading

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