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: Was Abhimanyu killed unfairly?
Abhimanyu is thought to have been killed unfairly because he is surrounded by atirathas inside the Chakravyuha, and because Karna shoots at his bow from behind. But once trapped inside the formation, it is Abhimanyu who first breaks the rules of fair fight. Overall, this becomes the pivotal moment of the Mahabharata war only because Abhimanyu is Arjuna’s son.
Read on to learn more about whether Abhimanyu was killed unfairly.
(For answers to all Abhimanyu-related questions, see Abhimanyu: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero.)
To understand Abhimanyu’s death from all points of view, we should look at the context in which it occurs. By the end of Day 12 of the Mahabharata war, Drona – who has taken over from Bhishma as commander – is at his wits’ end.
On Days 11 and 12, Drona has promised Duryodhana to capture Yudhishthir alive. But on both occasions, he is thwarted by Arjuna’s prowess.
As Day 13 dawns, therefore, Drona designs the Chakravyuha, supposedly one of the most complex arrays known to warfare.
Only Krishna and Arjuna have the knowledge of both entering and exiting the Chakravyuha. And because the Samshaptakas are employed to engage with Arjuna throughout the day, the two of them will be out of action.
Of the remaining Pandava warriors, only Abhimanyu knows how to penetrate the array. Crucially, however, he does not know how to exit it.
And Drona takes a vow at the start of the day that he will kill at least one Pandava atiratha by sundown. For the Pandavas, failure to deal with the Chakravyuha competently could mean that Yudhishthir will get captured.
The stakes, therefore, are quite high on both sides.
One other aspect of the Mahabharata that bears mentioning is that there is a distinct Pro-Pandava bias to the whole narrative. The killing of Abhimanyu is not an exception.
The frame that the storyteller employs is that the Pandavas are on the ‘good’ side of this war. They are the noble ones. Duryodhana and the Kauravas represent ‘Adharma’ or ‘evil’.
So Abhimanyu is cast in the role of a lone hero lost deep inside the Kaurava ranks. And pages upon pages of description are devoted to how heroic he is and how cruel the Kaurava warriors are for ‘ganging up’ on him.
But a more objective reading of the situation reveals that the ‘poor Abhimanyu got slaughtered’ trope may be more propaganda than truth.
No Choice but Abhimanyu
First, we must remember that Yudhishthir has no choice other than Abhimanyu to counter Drona’s Chakravyuha. Once Arjuna and Krishna decide that they will fight the Samshaptakas, Abhimanyu is the only warrior that can lead the Pandava army on this day.
What else is Yudhishthir meant to do? Put someone else in charge and lose the battle? Rely on Arjuna to come back and rescue them if matters turn sour? Run the risk of being captured by Drona?
Arjuna returns from battle on the thirteenth day and admonishes Yudhishthir: ‘You sent a mere boy into that most ruthless of formations!’
This is only Arjuna’s grief speaking. Even he would appreciate that if anyone, the blame for this ought to rest on Arjuna and Krishna.
Once they got to know that the Chakravyuha was being deployed, why did they not reject the Samshaptakas’ challenge and stay back to fight with the rest of the army?
Jayadratha receives plenty of flak in this story for warding off Abhimanyu’s reinforcements, and for ensuring that the son of Arjuna gets trapped inside the Chakravyuha.
But he is stationed at the mouth of the formation by Drona, to guard it. That is exactly his duty as a warrior. Indeed, he tries his best to stop Abhimanyu as well, but fails. Then he exerts himself against Bhima, Satyaki and the rest to cut off Abhimanyu from the rest.
Again – what is Jayadratha meant to do in this situation? Fight with kindness and lose so that the Chakravyuha breaks?
Here too, if anyone is deserving of blame, it ought to be Drona for building the formation in such a way as to attract the Pandava atiratha into it and trap him.
Arjuna’s later anger at Jayadratha is also, therefore, unjustified. The Saindhava king was merely doing his duty. It is Arjuna who takes it all too personally.
As soon as Abhimanyu realizes that he is trapped inside the Chakravyuha, he knows that he is going to die. Now, he makes the decision to abandon all traditions of ‘fair fighting’, and to kill as many soldiers in the Kaurava army as he can.
So he launches himself against all kinds of people – footmen, cavalry, elephants and chariot-warriors. He also lets himself loose with respect to what kind of weapons to use.
All this while, like his father, he has been fighting with earthly weapons. But now, pushed to the brink, he begins to use celestial weapons that he had learnt to wield from Arjuna.
This choice by Abhimanyu is understandable. Once you know that you’re going to die, you want to take as many enemy lives with you as you can. That is the cold, unswerving logic of a soldier.
When the Kaurava atirathas like Ashwatthama, Kritavarma and Karna try to hold Abhimanyu back, they get beaten easily because the son of Arjuna is in his most terrifying form. He is fighting without fearing for his life.
After parrying with Abhimanyu for a while, Drona realizes that he is taking too much damage at the hands of one man. He decides that it is time that Abhimanyu is separated from his weapons and chariot.
This is a commonly used strategy: if a chariot-warrior is being too formidable, then you force him onto his feet, render him weaponless, and then attack him again.
Now, the first of these blows comes from Karna – who breaks Abhimanyu’s bow with an arrow shot from behind. Kripa and Kritavarma also assist in this attack, killing the rearguards and shattering the chariot.
This is often referred to as being beyond the pale. Isn’t shooting at a warrior from behind him considered wrong?
In the normal course of events, yes. But here, Abhimanyu is already inside the Kaurava ranks. He has soldiers converging around him from all directions.
In fact, for a long time leading up to this moment, Abhimanyu is described as fighting off enemies in all directions, with his chariot rotating around a single point.
That aside, what else is Drona meant to do? Is he going to sit back and think about the rules of fair fighting while his army is being decimated by Abhimanyu?
Fighting on Foot
After Abhimanyu is forced onto his feet, none of the Kaurava chariot-warriors engage with him directly. Only when he attacks them – as it happens on two occasions, once with a sword and another time with a chariot-wheel – they disarm him to defend themselves.
After his chariot-wheel and sword are destroyed, Abhimanyu changes tack and begins to use a mace to attack only foot soldiers and elephants. We are told that he kills many thousands of common infantrymen.
During this phase of the war, none of the chariot-warriors interfere. All it would have taken is one arrow from Drona or Karna to kill Abhimanyu. But they resist.
Only when the son of Duhsasana (we don’t know his name) arrives with mace in hand and challenges Abhimanyu, the final chapter to the saga begins.
As the two of them spar with their maces, once again, none of the Kaurava atirathas interfere. The son of Duhsasana is left to fight and defeat Abhimanyu on his own.
All of this is probably on Drona’s command. And it is very considerate of the Kauravas.
All in all, therefore, the killing of Abhimanyu is no more or less cruel than any other acts of violence that happen on Kurukshetra on the first twelve days.
The only ethically grey act that the Kauravas commit during this chapter is to break Abhimanyu’s weapons and chariot while shooting at him from behind.
However, the fact that Abhimanyu is already surrounded by enemy soldiers means that he was expecting to be shot at from any direction.
The only reason that Abhimanyu’s death becomes a talking point is because the boy is Arjuna’s favourite son. Despite being a warrior, and despite knowing that violence is not personal, Arjuna cannot help but seek ‘revenge’ for his son’s death.
And his targeting of Jayadratha on Day 14 begins a whole sequence of events that lead to the brutal end of the Kurukshetra war.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Bhima: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered