Abhimanyu is the son of Arjuna in the Mahabharata. He is the most significant among the Pandavas’ sons. He is believed to be the incarnation of Varcha, the son of Soma the moon god.
Abhimanyu achieves glory by bravely entering the Chakravyuha (or the ‘wheel formation’) designed by Drona on the thirteenth day of the Kurukshetra war.
He gets trapped inside the Chakravyuha, and loses his life in a brutal passage of battle during which he kills many Kaurava soldiers.
Abhimanyu’s death becomes the turning point of the war. After this, Arjuna sheds all his prior inhibitions and becomes extremely ruthless as a warrior.
In this post, we will answer the question: How did Abhimanyu die?
Abhimanyu dies when, inside the Chakravyuha, the son of Duhsasana defeats him in a mace fight and hits him on the head. But before that, Abhimanyu gets stripped of all his weapons and his chariot by the atirathas of the Kaurava army, who team up against him.
Read on to learn more about how Abhimanyu died.
(For answers to all Abhimanyu-related questions, see Abhimanyu: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero.)
The Thirteenth Morning
To understand Abhimanyu’s death properly, one must know the contextual setup of the war on the thirteenth morning. Chiefly, there are three items in play:
- One: Drona has promised Duryodhana that on this day, he will certainly kill at least one Pandava atiratha. Note that he does not mention Abhimanyu by name. But he plans to snare one of the atirathas of the Pandava side.
- Two: Yudhishthir learns that Drona is employing the Chakravyuha. On Days 11 and 12, Drona had vowed to capture Yudhishthir. So Yudhishthir thinks that unless the Chakravyuha is neutralized, he will be captured and the war will end.
- Three: Arjuna and Krishna are challenged by the Samshaptakas, who are employed by Drona primarily to keep the two warriors away from the thick of battle. These are the only two people on the Pandava side who are comfortable with the Chakravyuha.
Because of the three above facts, it so happens that Abhimanyu is the only warrior in the entire Pandava army who is able to at least break open the Chakravyuha.
Granted, he does not know how to exit it. But Yudhishthir has to work with this. He therefore makes a plan that Abhimanyu will enter the Chakravyuha, and that a whole host of reinforcements will follow him, making sure that the breach stays open.
This is actually a good plan. Bhima, Nakula, Satyaki and Sahadeva are all great warriors, and on any other day they would have had no trouble supporting Abhimanyu on this quest.
What makes the prospect even more encouraging (from the Pandavas’ perspective) is that the person guarding the mouth of the formation is Jayadratha.
The Pandavas have already fought and defeated Jayadratha before. So they would have felt confident about overcoming him in a bid to create a fissure through Drona’s impregnable array.
(If it had been Drona guarding the Chakravyuha, for instance, perhaps Yudhishthir would have paused for thought.)
So far the Pandavas are on firm ground. But unfortunately for them, on this particular day, Jayadratha brings out his A-game. He does lose to Abhimanyu and lets him pass, but after that, he mounts such a heroic defence that the supporting heroes are thwarted.
Abhimanyu, therefore, gets trapped inside the Chakravyuha.
Inside the Chakravyuha
As soon as Abhimanyu turns back and sees that his reinforcements are gone, and as soon as he looks around and sees that he is only surrounded by Kaurava soldiers, he knows that he is soon going to die.
Yes, he can take the coward’s way out and plead for mercy with Drona. But he, the valiant son of Arjuna, is not going to do that.
Therefore he takes the decision that any man in his shoes would have. If I am going to die, he thinks, let me take as many men down with me as I can.
In doing this, he starts fighting with rare bloodlust. He gives himself full rein. He uses celestial weapons on common soldiers. He attacks soldiers who are not of the same rank as he is. Thus, he violates two of the precepts of Dharma Yuddha.
They are not salient rules, not as scandalous as killing a man who is meditating or sleeping, but they’re definitely rules.
Once Abhimanyu is trapped inside the Chakravyuha, imagine Drona’s expectations.
He knows that his promise to Duryodhana is on the cusp of being fulfilled. He has created the Chakravyuha with the intention of trapping one of the Pandava atirathas. And he has succeeded.
Perhaps he feels a little twinge that this atiratha happens to be Arjuna’s boy. But this is a war. There is no time or place for matters of the heart.
Abhimanyu is inside the Chakravyuha, alone. He is surrounded by Kaurava soldiers and heroes. It will be an easy matter to dispose of him and move on to the bigger challenge of capturing Yudhishthir.
But now it is Drona’s turn to be surprised. He watches as Abhimanyu unleashes a torrent of destruction on his forces. Minute after minute passes by and Abhimanyu continues to massacre everyone in sight.
Six Atirathas Beaten
Abhimanyu not only fights against common soldiers but also fights against the atirathas of the Kaurava army. 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.
Drona, here, is beside himself with half-admiration, half-desperation. On the one hand he confides in Kripa that Abhimanyu is fighting like Arjuna himself. On the other, he knows that he must kill the boy quickly in order to minimize damages.
So when Karna seeks him out to ask for help, Drona is ready with some advice.
‘Abhimanyu is young, Karna,’ he says. ‘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 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.
Wielding a Wheel
His chariot and weapons destroyed, Abhimanyu leaps onto the ground, 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.
This image of Abhimanyu fighting with a chariot-wheel is a powerful motif. The wheel stands for a number of things in the Mahabharata: for one, it is Krishna’s chosen weapon.
For another, the wheel is how Dharma is often symbolically represented. Here the message seems to be that Abhimanyu is fighting on behalf of Dharma against all the forces of evil arrayed against him.
In any case, the atirathas surrounding him easily shatter the wheel and once again render him weaponless.
Conduct of the Atirathas
We must note here that the chariot-warriors of the Kaurava army do not land the killing blow on Abhimanyu despite being able to do so.
They only disarm Abhimanyu. They break his bow, kill his horses, shatter his chariot, and kill his rear attendants. When Abhimanyu picks up a sword, they merely destroy it. When he picks up a chariot-wheel, they render it to pieces.
But they do not shoot any arrows at him directly.
Part of the reason might be that they believe – like Drona – that his armour is impenetrable. But there are ways to injure and kill a man even when he is wearing strong armour. There are always parts of the body that are unprotected.
It appears that the atirathas are refraining themselves from killing Abhimanyu because he is now fighting from foot, and it is not proper for a chariot-warrior to directly engage with a man whose chariot is broken.
The right thing to do is for one of the warriors to challenge him for a duel – on foot.
Which is what happens when the son of Duhsasana arrives with mace in hand, beckoning to Abhimanyu who had also picked up a mace for himself in the interim.
The Final Fight
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.
Here too, one must note that while the fight is going on, none of the atirathas intervene to assist the son of Duhsasana against Abhimanyu. It would have been easy to do so, but they refrain.
They wait and watch until Abhimanyu is defeated in a ‘fair’ fight.
Drona is relieved by this, because he finally gets to keep his promise to Duryodhana. But he is also aghast at the number of resources and amount of effort they had to expend to kill one person.
In the opposing camp, the death of Abhimanyu becomes a clarion call. Arjuna makes a vow that he will kill Jayadratha before sundown the next day. All the other Pandavas are convinced that Abhimanyu was killed in a despicable manner.
In reality, the manner of Abhimanyu’s death was as proper (or as improper) as any other death in Kurukshetra. But because Arjuna takes this so personally, the rest of the army rallies with him.
All of this leads to a terribly violent fourteenth day, on which Jayadratha gets killed.
And from there, the heads begin to roll thick and fast. The war descends into utter anarchy.
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