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: Who killed Abhimanyu?
A number of people are responsible for the killing of Abhimanyu: (1) Krishna and Arjuna, (2) Yudhishthir, (3) Drona, (4) Jayadratha, (5) The six atirathas who attack him inside the Chakravyuha, and (6) the son of Duhsasana who lands the final blow that kills Abhimanyu. Of all of these, Drona is the most culpable by far.
Read on to learn more about who killed Abhimanyu.
(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.
Keeping the above factors in mind, we can look at all the human causes of Abhimanyu’s death from all angles.
First of all, we have Arjuna and Krishna.
Arjuna and Krishna
Arjuna and Krishna play an important role in Abhimanyu’s death. In fact, one might even go as far as to say they’re among the chief causes of it.
Why? Because both Arjuna and Krishna know the context surrounding the thirteenth morning.
They know that Drona is out to capture Yudhishthir; they know that Drona is going to employ the Chakravyuha; and they know that barring them, Abhimanyu is the only warrior who knows how to break into the Chakravyuha.
Despite knowing this, they do not snub the Samshaptakas’ challenge. They respond to it positively, and they allow themselves to be dragged away to the edge of the battlefield far away from the Chakravyuha.
If they had instead chosen to stay close to Yudhishthir, Abhimanyu’s services may not have been needed at all. Arjuna and Krishna would have handled the Chakravyuha, and all would have been well.
Now, we do not know if this is deliberate – some theories suggest that Krishna wanted to bring about Abhimanyu’s death to bring out Arjuna’s ruthless form – but at the very least it’s a lapse of judgement.
Arjuna and Krishna thus become an important cause of Abhimanyu’s death.
Yudhishthir’s situation during the thirteenth morning is an unenviable one. His primary protector, Arjuna, had left him and gone to fight the Samshaptakas. And in front of him he sees a formation that only Arjuna knows how to fully tackle.
What is he to do?
Broadly, he has two options: one is to arrange his own forces in an extremely defensive formation that will withstand the Chakravyuha. The second is to go on the offensive and take a chance on breaking the Chakravyuha with Abhimanyu’s help.
It’s a difficult choice. A defensive formation with himself stationed at the center might work. But it may play into Drona’s hands, who is clearly banking on a move like this from Yudhishthir.
An offensive strategy is riskier, but at least it has the element of surprise. Plus, given that Jayadratha is the one guarding the mouth of the Chakravyuha, Yudhishthir may have fancied Bhima and Nakula’s chances of following Abhimanyu in without trouble.
So he takes the offensive option. And he risks Abhimanyu’s life.
If he had instead chosen to be more defensive in his approach, he may have saved Abhimanyu. So Yudhishthir also is a cause of the boy’s death – a fact that Arjuna angrily refers to in the evening after he comes to know.
Despite Arjuna’s protests to the contrary, the person most responsible for Abhimanyu’s death is Drona. It may not even be unfair to say that Drona killed Abhimanyu.
Why? Because it is Drona who designed the Chakravyuha formation, knowing that Arjuna and Krishna would be unavailable. Drona knows that only Abhimanyu in the Pandava army knows how to break it open.
Now, of course Yudhishthir might choose not to risk Abhimanyu’s life, in which case Drona would advance the formation toward the Pandava army and go for Yudhishthir’s jugular.
But in the event that Yudhishthir does use Abhimanyu’s skills, Drona knows beforehand that there is a distinct possibility that it is he who will get trapped inside the array.
Also, after Abhimanyu is trapped, it is Drona who makes all the strategic calls on how he is to be killed. Drona is the one who plans how Abhimanyu has to be forced to fight on foot, how to disarm him completely, and how he must meet his death.
All the other atirathas play their roles, but it is Drona who spins the web.
Now we come to the man who takes all the official flak for Abhimanyu’s death. Jayadratha guards the entrance to the Chakravyuha on the thirteenth day – a role he is given by Drona.
He thwarts Yudhishthir’s plan that once Abhimanyu makes inroads into the array, the likes of Bhima, Nakula and Satyaki can follow the son of Arjuna in with their respective divisions.
The idea is to use Abhimanyu to infiltrate the formation, and use the reinforcements to break it open completely.
But Jayadratha – fighting at the head of a large division of Sindhu soldiers – becomes the dam that repairs the breach caused by Abhimanyu. He holds back Bhima, Nakula, Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna all by himself.
Due to this heroic display of skill, Abhimanyu ends up being lost inside the Chakravyuha all by himself. This leads Arjuna to claim that but for Jayadratha, Abhimanyu would have lived.
But of course, we do not know that for certain. What if Bhima, Nakula, and Satyaki had been let into the Chakravyuha – and they all perished along with Abhimanyu?
Because after all, none of them know how to exit the Chakravyuha. Arjuna assumes their combined power would have got them out with brute strength. But it’s only an assumption.
In any case, that makes Jayadratha one of the men responsible for Abhimanyu’s death.
After Abhimanyu gets trapped inside the Chakravyuha, six atirathas get together to dismantle Abhimanyu’s chariot. They are Karna, Kripa, Kritavarma, Drona, Ashwatthama and Brihadvala.
(That last person is not described much during the war, only in passing. But we’re told that he is one of the Kaurava atirathas.)
Desperate to stop the unstoppable Abhimanyu, Drona makes a plan whereby the six warriors take turns systematically destroying Abhimanyu’s chariot, his horses, his rear attendants and his bow.
The strategy is to force Abhimanyu to fight on his feet, so that he can then be managed more easily.
Karna is the one who breaks Abhimanyu’s bow, shooting at him from behind. Kritavarma kills Abhimanyu’s horses, while Kripa accounts for the two rear-guards.
When Abhimanyu leaps onto the ground and picks up a sword and shield, Drona and Karna destroy his new weapons. When Abhimanyu picks up a chariot-wheel to defend himself, the six of them shatter it to pieces.
All six atirathas, therefore, assume some blame in the death of Abhimanyu.
The Son of Duhsasana
The man landing the final blow on Abhimanyu’s death – the blow that actually kills him – is the son of Duhsasana. We’re not told his name, nor does he make crucial appearances elsewhere in the war.
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.
So the son of Duhsasana is the final man responsible for Abhimanyu’s death. Though he will be known as the ‘killer’ of Abhimanyu, in reality, he plays perhaps the least important role in the whole affair.
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