Karna is the first son of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.
He is also a close friend of Duryodhana, the eldest of the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who are together called the Kauravas. Duryodhana is the story’s prime antagonist, and Karna becomes his prime ally in his machinations against the Pandavas.
In this post, we will answer the question: Why does Karna kill Abhimanyu?
Karna, along with five other warriors (Kritavarma, Ashwatthama, Drona, Kripa and Shalya), kill Abhimanyu inside the Chakravyuha on the thirteenth day. But Karna is the one who breaks Abhimanyu’s bow from behind and disarms him. He does this on the advice of Drona, after Karna approaches the preceptor for help.
Read on to discover more about why Karna killed Abhimanyu.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
On the thirteenth day of battle, Drona promises Duryodhana that on this day, he will kill at least one Pandava atiratha.
This comes on the heels of the preceptor trying over the previous two days to capture Yudhishthir alive, only for Arjuna to foil his plans.
For the thirteenth day, therefore, Drona assigns to the Samshaptakas – a class of warriors who take an oath to ‘die or conquer’ – the task of diverting Arjuna and keeping him busy.
(Suggested: Why did Drona support the Kauravas?)
The rest of the Kaurava army can then focus on killing the one Pandava atiratha.
Drona deliberately creates an array called the Chakravyuha – which only Arjuna and Krishna in the Pandava army know how to break.
However, Abhimanyu, the son of Uttara and Arjuna, knows how to ‘half-break’ this formation. This means that he has learnt to enter it but now how to exit it.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 43: Drona Creates the Chakravyuha.)
Abhimanyu is Isolated
First thing in the morning, the Samshaptakas pull Arjuna and Krishna away to one edge of the battlefield, effectively keeping them engaged for the whole day.
Faced with the Chakravyuha, and concerned by the prospect of being captured by Drona, Yudhishthir assigns the task of breaking into the formation to the one warrior who knows how: Abhimanyu.
Abhimanyu accepts the quest, but also reminds Yudhishthir about his limitation. ‘I know how to break it open, O King,’ he says. ‘But if I am trapped inside, I will not know how to make my way out.’
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 25: Jayadratha Abducts Draupadi.)
Bhima assures Abhimanyu that will not happen. ‘I, Satyaki, Nakula and Sahadeva will follow you closely, my son,’ he says. ‘Leave unto us the work of keeping the Chakravyuha open after you enter it.’
Thus supported, a beaming Abhimanyu declares that he will perform feats on this day that his father and uncle will recount with pride in years.
He dashes in his chariot toward Drona’s Chakravyuha, easily penetrating and disappearing into the Kaurava ranks.
Bhima and the rest try their best to keep up, but standing in their path is Jayadratha, the Saindhava king. He prevents Abhimanyu’s reinforcements from entering the Chakravyuha.
The formation closes all around Abhimanyu, and he gets trapped.
(Suggested: Was Karna a student of Drona?)
After he realizes that he is essentially a dead man, Abhimanyu begins to fight like a man possessed. He destroys an entire akshauhini of Duryodhana’s forces on his own.
During this battle he breaks a number of minor battle rules – the most common of which is that mounted chariot warriors should not attack soldiers who are fighting on foot.
Abhimanyu wins numerous dues against the likes of Drona, Ashwatthama and Karna, but interspersed between these are his arrows flying at and piercing the bodies of beasts and men who are beneath the rank of ratha.
(Suggested: Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata?)
Karna asks Drona
Soon after a battle in which Abhimanyu defeats Karna (and kills his son), the latter goes to Drona for advice on how to defeat Abhimanyu. Drona says, ‘He fights with such skill that the only way might be if you break his bow from behind.’
Karna proceeds to do exactly this. Other warriors take a cue from this – for example, Kritavarma kills Abhimanyu’s rear attendants – and soon force the son of Arjuna to fight on foot.
Once separated from his chariot, it is only a matter of time before Abhimanyu succumbs.
(Suggested: 12 More Mahabharata Stories from the Drona Parva – Part 2.)
After his vehicle has been reduced to pieces, Abhimanyu picks up a chariot wheel and begins to fight with it. But the chariot warriors surrounding him shatter it as well.
Abhimanyu’s final weapon is a mace, with which he kills several elephants and horses. He is then challenged by the son of Duhsasana, who also brings a mace of his own to the fight.
The duel proceeds for a long time until both men, overcome by exhaustion, fall unconscious. The son of Duhsasana, though, is the first to recover. He walks over to Abhimanyu (who is just tottering awake) and lands a heavy blow on his head.
Karna’s role in killing Abhimanyu is actually a very small one. He merely happens to be the warrior who lands the first blow on the son of Subhadra. He does so under the command of Drona.
One might argue that it is Karna’s fervent plea that made Drona think along the lines of killing Abhimanyu using unfair means, but Drona’s promise to Duryodhana is as good as fulfilled the moment Jayadratha guarded the mouth of the Chakravyuha ably.
This is why that Arjuna – later, after hearing with shock how his son had been slaughtered – holds Jayadratha responsible for it all.
(Suggested: Why did Karna dislike the Pandavas?)
The killing of Abhimanyu is often cited – by characters in the story – later in the war as an example of extreme Adharma. On the fourteenth day, Satyaki uses this as an excuse to mercilessly slice Bhurishrava’s throat when the latter is meditating.
Dhrishtadyumna then uses Satyaki as precedent to kill Drona when he relinquishes his weapons.
(Both these acts will have consequences: Dhrishtadyumna meets his death in the hands of a vengeful Ashwatthama, the son of Drona. Satyaki’s unholy act becomes the reason for his fight with Kritavarma many years later, which leads to the death of the Yadavas.)
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 44: Abhimanyu Dies.)
However, after Abhimanyu is trapped inside the Chakravyuha, and after he sheds all fear of death and begins to blaze forth in all directions like the sun, we must remember that he is surrounded by enemy forces.
So it is only a matter of time before he is shot an arrow or two from behind him. As for multiple atirathas teaming up to fight him, these many-to-one battles happen regularly in the war. By themselves, these are not examples of Adharma.
Indeed, the Kaurava warriors do not kill Abhimanyu themselves. The son of Duhsasana also does not take the easy route and shoot arrows at him. He challenges him with a mace – as per the rules of war.
(Suggested: Was Karna defeated by Abhimanyu?)
Arjuna Becomes Ruthless
However, it so happens that Abhimanyu is Arjuna’s favourite son. Despite being a warrior, and despite realizing deep within his heart that none of the deaths in the war are personal attacks, Arjuna cannot help but take this incident as an affront.
In a moment of grief and anger, he takes an oath that he will kill Jayadratha by sundown on the fourteenth day.
This marks the turning point of the war: this is when Arjuna sheds all his inhibitions and fights the Kauravas with all his might.
(Suggested: Where was Arjuna during Chakravyuha?)
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered