The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).
Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.
The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.
(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)
In this post, we will answer the question: What happens on Day 13 of the Mahabharata war?
It is a tough night for the Kaurava warriors, what with the dual plan of first distracting Arjuna and then capturing Yudhishthir backfiring spectacularly.
At the dawn of the thirteenth morning, Duryodhana finds himself in a salty mood, and his words directed at Drona reflect this.
‘Those you promised to destroy have destroyed us instead, Acharya,’ he says. ‘You gave me a boon that you will capture Yudhishthir, but yesterday, even when he came within your grasp, you chose to let him go.
‘I have heard before that you are ruthless in battle, O Preceptor, that once you set your sights upon an enemy, you bend destiny in your favour. But yesterday I have seen you fail.
‘Is it that the Pandavas are more powerful, sir? Or is it that you hesitate to exert yourself to the fullest?’
Drona smiles, not surprised at this because he has heard similar rebukes flying at the face of Bhishma before. ‘No army in the three worlds can come up against a force led by Arjuna and hope to win, Duryodhana,’ he says calmly.
‘That is why I asked you to keep him away. Even today, if we are to give a good account of ourselves, Arjuna must be kept busy. Out of sight!’
An Impenetrable Array
He then makes Duryodhana a promise that will end up reaping far-reaching consequences. ‘I will give you my word that I will slay today at least one atiratha that fights for the Pandavas,’ he says.
‘I will also form an array that is impenetrable by the very gods. But I repeat my entreaty, O King. Make it so that Arjuna will remain distracted for the whole day, not just part of it.’
The Kaurava army is shaped at sunrise, therefore, in the form of a chariot-wheel. The name of the array is the Chakra Vyuha.
Lakshmana, the son of Duryodhana is curiously placed at the head, near the entrance, by Drona’s side. Duryodhana himself is stationed right in the middle, out of sight and reach. The king is surrounded by Karna, Duhsasana and Kripacharya.
Guarding one of the inner rims of the wheel is Jayadratha of the Saindhavas.
On one side of Jayadratha stand Ashwatthama and thirty Dhartarashtras. He is flanked on the other side by Shakuni, Shalya and Bhurishrava, each with their respective armies spreading inward.
Only Four Warriors
Only four warriors (Krishna, Arjuna, Pradyumna and Abhimanyu) are said to know the method by which a Chakra Vyuha can be penetrated, and out of those, only the first three know the way to exit the formation in case they are trapped inside.
Out of these four, on this fateful day, with Arjuna and Krishna once again engaging with the Samshaptakas, only Abhimanyu is available for the Pandavas to use in order to break Drona’s array.
We should note that the text does not give any clear information about the exact shape of this formation. Some scholars speculate that it is a close-knit spiral that resembles a labyrinth or a blooming lotus [hence its other name Padma Vyuha].
Others prefer to imagine it as a number of concentric circles with the emperor at the nub. The chakra descriptor in the name appears to favour the latter theory.
Yudhishthir watches the constantly rotating maze of soldiers approaching the battlefield in the morning.
The besieged king calls for a meeting. In it, he asks Abhimanyu to lead them in their defence. ‘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.
Entrance into the Chakra Vyuha
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.
As Drona looks on, then, Abhimanyu succeeds in piercing the array.
Scores of elephants, horses and chariots rush to plug the hole that Abhimanyu causes in their ranks. In no time at all, 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.
Jayadratha Exacts Revenge
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.
He appears to be a mountain that has grown out of the ground, withstanding everything that they can shoot at him with great poise.
What this effectively means is that Abhimanyu is left alone deep inside the Chakra Vyuha, battling the Kaurava ranks on his own.
Lakshmana Kumara Dies
Inside the Chakra Vyuha, Abhimanyu unleashes himself on the Kaurava forces with ruthlessness, knowing that his time is up.
He comes face to face with Lakshmana, the son of Duryodhana.
Brought up in luxury, accomplished in arms but endued with courage born out of pride and inexperience, he courses against Abhimanyu at the head of the other warriors, drenching the son of Subhadra with a rain of arrows.
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 despatch 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.
The head of Lakshmana Kumara hits the earth just as the other warriors arrive on the scene. Kripa, Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama, Brihadvala and Kritavarma – the six of them converge upon the young Pandava prince to exact revenge.
Defeating Six Atirathas
With the six atirathas surrounding him once again, 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.
In another battle, Abhimanyu succeeds in piercing the heart of the Kosala king, Brihadvala, causing another big division of the Kaurava army to flee in paralytic fear.
With all the atirathas of the Kuru army wounded, and many of them dying off at the hands of the prince one by one, 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 smiles. ‘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.
And for a while he defends himself gamely, even managing to land a few blows on those soldiers that come close to him.
The six warriors eventually break the wheel in Abhimanyu’s hands into a hundred pieces. 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.
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.
Arjuna Guesses the Truth
After the day’s fighting ends, when Arjuna’s chariot enters the camp, he is struck by the fact that the veena is not playing tonight. The trumpeters are not to be seen in their usual places. Drummers and conch-bearers turn their faces away.
‘Is the ruler of the Panchalas well, Janardana?’ wonders the curly-haired one aloud. ‘Or perhaps Virata, the king of the Matsyas, our protector – he has fallen!’
But then he realizes that Abhimanyu – who always welcomes him home at the end of each day’s battle – is nowhere to be seen. Krishna brings the vehicle to a stop outside Yudhishthir’s tent, and upon entering it, Arjuna is surrounded by his four cheerless brothers.
Here, too, he does not see Abhimanyu.
‘Alas,’ he says, his voice breaking. ‘I heard that Drona has today formed the Chakra Vyuha. Among you, only Abhimanyu knew how to break it. Could it be that you sent the boy into the formation all on his own?’
Yudhishthir then tells Arjuna all about how Abhimanyu met his death.
Arjuna Takes an Oath
Arjuna is first saddened by Yudhishthir’s words, but he soon recovers his fierce temper. Shaking feverishly and squeezing his hands, with eyes bathed in tears, he says:
‘I swear that tomorrow I shall slay that Saindhava Jayadratha. Unless he chooses to flee from fear of death or he seeks the protection of Krishna, as long as he turns up to fight tomorrow, I shall kill him for the part he played in Abhimanyu’s slaughter.
‘Whoever is protecting him tomorrow will have to face my wrath – whether it is Karna, Kritavarma, the preceptor Drona, the Kuru Elder Kripacharya, or that sly Ashwatthama.
‘If I do not achieve Jayadratha’s death in tomorrow’s battle, may I never attain those regions reserved for the righteous. I shall instead go to those places inhabited by sinners!
If tomorrow’s sun sets without my killing that wretch, then I shall consign myself to flames. O Asuras, O Gods, O birds and snakes, O Pitris and wanderers of the night, O Sages both earthly and divine, O mobile and immobile creatures – listen!
‘None of you will succeed in protecting Jayadratha from me tomorrow. Even if he enters the abode of the nether regions, or ascends the firmament, or repairs to the celestials or to the realms of the Daityas, I shall still seek him out and cut his head off.’
Announcing his oath to the world thus, Arjuna raises his Gandiva and twangs its string.
He blows on the Devadatta, even as Krishna joins him with the Panchajanya.
The thirteenth day of the Mahabharata war ends thus, with Arjuna making a fearsome promise to himself.
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