Why did Abhimanyu have to die?

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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: Why did Abhimanyu have to die?

Abhimanyu had to die in order to fulfil his destiny as the incarnation of Varcha, the son of Soma. Soma decrees that his son will have a short but glorious life on Earth. Also, the death of Abhimanyu serves as a catalyst for Arjuna to adopt his most ruthless form during the war of Kurukshetra. Abhimanyu’s death therefore is necessary to ensure the Pandavas’ victory.

Read on to learn more about why Abhimanyu had to die.

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

Soma’s Love

One of the main reasons that Abhimanyu is destined to have a short life on Earth is because of the wishes of Soma, the moon god.

At the very beginning of the Mahabharata, we are shown a scene where all the gods of heaven are contributing parts of their selves to aid good in the fight against evil.

This good versus evil battle will take the form of an eighteen-day war in Kurukshetra many years in the future. But the gods, of course, know all of this beforehand.

While Vishnu volunteers to become Krishna and the fathers of the Pandavas pledge their sons to take up pole positions on the ‘good’ side, Soma, the moon god hesitates to put forward his son, Varcha.

‘I love my son too much,’ Soma says. ‘I can only bear to part with him for sixteen years. But he will play a pivotal role in the final climactic fight. His death will tilt the scales decisively toward the forces of virtue.’

The other gods agree. Varcha, thus, assumes the form of Abhimanyu, the son of Subhadra and Arjuna.

Right from his birth, Abhimanyu’s death is destined to occur in the Mahabharata war. The very condition upon which he takes birth is that he will meet his death on the battlefield as a sixteen-year-old.

Arjuna’s Reluctance

One of the overarching themes of the first ten days of the Mahabharata war is the reluctance of Arjuna to fight against his kinsmen.

At the beginning of the war, Krishna gives his good friend some advice in the form of the Bhagavad Gita. This gives Arjuna enough impetus to pick up his weapons, but he is constantly fighting his inner demons.

Every now and then, Krishna takes on the role of provocateur, goading Arjuna into displaying his best form.

After Bhishma’s death, Arjuna still gets these bouts of lethargy where he questions if the war is worth being fought. Only after the death of Abhimanyu does the real Arjuna emerge.

When he returns from the battle on the thirteenth night and discovers that his son had been killed, Arjuna finally finds his purpose: to avenge the death of Abhimanyu.

On the fourteenth day, he shows the world his prowess by scything through Drona’s impenetrable array, and by hunting down Jayadratha just as the sun is about to set.

From that point on, the war turns into an unceasing bloodbath. In hindsight, therefore, Abhimanyu had to die for Arjuna to don his most ruthless avatar – without which victory might have been a much more arduous affair for the Pandavas.

Krishna’s Foresight

The official version of the Mahabharata assumes that Krishna is Vishnu incarnate. As the supreme mover of the universe, he knows all that has happened, all that is happening, and all that will happen.

So he knows right at the birth of Abhimanyu that the boy has to die on the Kurukshetra battlefield in order for Dharma to triumph.

There is a school of thought that Krishna, knowing this, deliberately refrains from teaching Abhimanyu the art of leaving the Chakravyuha, foreseeing that Drona will spring a trap from which the boy must not escape.

This is also the reason why, on the thirteenth day, when the Samshaptakas arrive to challenge Arjuna and to take him away to the far edge of the battlefield, Krishna does not advise his friend against it.

In his mind’s eye, he already knows that the day belongs to Abhimanyu who – with his heroic death – will pave the way for Arjuna’s unravelling. So he quietly leads the chariot away from the Chakravyuha.

Drona’s Shame

Despite all the stars of fate pointing toward Abhimanyu’s death, he may have still escaped if Drona had not been on the brink of shame himself on the thirteenth day.

This is the third day of Drona’s leadership. On the eleventh and twelfth days of the war, Drona has already twice promised to capture Yudhishthir and failed. On the eve of the third morning, he has promised Duryodhana that he will kill at least one Pandava atiratha.

If he fails on the thirteenth day as well, it would be a tremendous loss of face for Drona.

Even if none of the Kaurava warriors would call him out on it, Drona would be ashamed for not living up to his own high standards.

Had this context been absent, one can imagine Drona being lenient toward Abhimanyu once the latter is trapped inside the Chakravyuha. While it is inconceivable that Drona would have let the boy go, he may have toned down the aggression against him.

One must also remember that Abhimanyu is the son of Drona’s favourite pupil, so all other factors being equal, Drona would have done his best to give Abhimanyu a fair shake at the very least.

But on the day that Abhimanyu gets trapped in the Chakravyuha, it so happens that Drona himself is desperate for a victory. The stakes are already too high.

Abhimanyu’s Choice

After getting trapped in the Chakravyuha, Abhimanyu reasons: I am already as good as dead. I am going to now kill as many Kaurava soldiers and warriors I can before they take me.

This thought process defines his actions from then on. He begins to push at the line of fairness, and starts to use celestial weapons against common soldiers in a bid to cause maximum damage.

If he had taken another route, perhaps he might have been spared.

For instance, if he had asked for mercy from Drona, and if he had relinquished his weapons, it is unlikely that Drona would still have ordered him to be killed.

This behaviour would have been highly uncharacteristic of Abhimanyu, but by going the other way – i.e. by launching himself heroically against the enemy – he leaves the Kauravas no choice other than to employ whatever means necessary to kill him.

All of these factors contribute to the inevitable death of Abhimanyu.

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