How did Abhimanyu know about the Chakravyuha?

How did Abhimanyu know about the chakravyuha - Featured Image - Picture of a brain lighting up while learning

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 know about the Chakravyuha?

Three possibilities exist as to how Abhimanyu came to know about the Chakravyuha: (1) He learnt it from inside Subhadra’s womb while listening to Arjuna speak; (2) he learnt it under Krishna and Pradyumna’s guidance during the Pandavas’ exile; (3) he learnt it from Arjuna after the Pandavas’ exile, before the war begins.

Read on to learn more about how Abhimanyu learned about the Chakravyuha, and why his knowledge was half-complete.

(For answers to all Abhimanyu-related questions, see Abhimanyu: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero.)

Subhadra’s Pregnancy

Toward the end of his twelve-year-exile immediately after Yudhishthir’s ascent to the throne at Khandavaprastha, Arjuna arrives in Dwaraka to partake of Krishna’s hospitality.

As his trip draws to a close, on Krishna’s advice, Arjuna abducts Subhadra – the princess of Dwaraka – and later marries her.

The two of them live in Dwaraka for a period of a year after their marriage. During this time, Subhadra gives birth to their only son, Abhimanyu.

One of the stories that revolves around a heavily pregnant Subhadra listening to Arjuna describe the ins and outs of the Chakravyuha. Subhadra is said to be tired and bored with this conversation.

But the foetus growing inside her womb is all ears. He listens to his father describe how to enter the Chakravyuha.

Krishna’s Intervention

The story goes on to describe how Arjuna fully intends to regale Subhadra with a full explanation of how a warrior might exit the Chakravyuha as well. And the foetus would have learned that art too.

But just as Arjuna finishes the first part of his speech, Krishna arrives and says, ‘Why do you speak of matters of war to women, Partha?’ And he takes him away.

This leaves Subhadra grateful – because she has been wishing to rest – but Abhimanyu is left without the knowledge of how to escape from the Chakravyuha if one is trapped within it.

However, it must be said that this story is rather far-fetched. For one, the thought of a foetus being able to learn such a complex art from within the womb is unbelievable – even in the Mahabharata universe.

For another, one assumes that there is more to learning this art of breaking the Chakravyuha than merely hearing about it. Did Abhimanyu also practice this as he grew into a young man?

Some people have speculated that Krishna’s intervention is deliberate. He knows beforehand that Abhimanyu’s half-knowledge of the Chakravyuha will play an important role in the far future.

Learning from Krishna

A more realistic possibility is that Abhimanyu does not learn the art of entering the Chakravyuha from Arjuna at all. After all, when Arjuna leaves on his exile, Abhimanyu is only two years old – or thereabouts.

After Arjuna’s return from exile, there simply is no time for the father to teach his son anything as complex as this. Perhaps the Pandavas have a few months to prepare for war. Did Arjuna have enough opportunity to teach Abhimanyu about the Chakravyuha?

Perhaps he did. But most likely, he didn’t.

It is far more probable to assume that Abhimanyu learned about the Chakravyuha from Krishna or Pradyumna, both of whom, we’re told, have complete knowledge about the formation.

Not only do they know about it, but they also know how to break it in the thick of battle.

And we know that from the age of two to about sixteen, Abhimanyu was fostered – along with the other Upa Pandavas – at Dwaraka, under the tutorship of Pradyumna and Krishna.

Abhimanyu’s Half-knowledge

If we agree that this is the truth, then it also raises the question: Why did Krishna (or Pradyumna) not teach Abhimanyu the skill of exiting from the Chakravyuha?

The more unbelievable reason is that Krishna deliberately ensures that this happens. He instructs Pradyumna that Abhimanyu should be taught only the ‘first half’ of this art, because he knows that it will play an important part in the war.

But if we root ourselves in realism, then we must hypothesize that they may have run out of time. In the fourteen years that Abhimanyu spends in Dwaraka, he learns many, many things.

His education is interrupted by the announcement of war. It is entirely possible that Abhimanyu had just finished learning about how to enter the Chakravyuha – and had probably practiced it a few times – when war breaks out.

One also assumes that entering the Chakravyuha is the easier bit. Learning how to break it open all by yourself from the inside probably requires much more skill and experience from the warrior – attributes that Abhimanyu did not yet possess.

The Upa Pandavas?

If we accept that Abhimanyu learned of the Chakravyuha from Pradyumna (and not Arjuna), then we must also ask why Pradyumna did not teach the same skill to the Upa Pandavas as well.

After all, they were training under him together. Why did Pradyumna teach only Abhimanyu about the Chakravyuha?

Here again, a couple of possibilities present themselves. The first is that Krishna and Pradyumna are not above bias and favouritism. They may have singled out Abhimanyu to learn the ‘special knowledge’ that will give him an edge over the Upa Pandavas.

Another possibility – the more likely one – is that the Chakravyuha is an advanced art, and is only taught to warriors who have reached a certain level of battle skill. The Upa Pandavas may not have been as good as Abhimanyu.

Of all his wards, Pradyumna may have objectively judged Abhimanyu as the only one capable of learning how to handle a Chakravyuha.

One Final Possibility

One final possibility exists. It is possible that Abhimanyu did not learn about the Chakravyuha until the Pandavas returned from their exile.

And in the interval between their return from the forest and the beginning of the war, Arjuna teaches his favourite son the secret of how to enter the array.

This, of course, assumes once again that Arjuna runs out of time to properly teach Abhimanyu how to exit the formation if one finds himself trapped.

In the one year or so that the Pandavas take to prepare for the war, we might say that Abhimanyu practices how to enter the Chakravyuha. But he does not get to learn even the theoretical framework of how to leave it.

This theory has two things going for it: (1) it reinforces the idea that Abhimanyu is Arjuna’s favourite son, and (2) it explains why Arjuna laments at Abhimanyu’s death: ‘I have not yet taught him how to leave the Chakravyuha, alas!’

Ironically, if Arjuna had not taught Abhimanyu anything about the Chakravyuha, Abhimanyu’s life may have been spared. So Arjuna’s favouritism and eagerness indirectly cause Abhimanyu’s death.

Further Reading

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