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 was Abhimanyu killed so brutally?
In reality, the act of killing Abhimanyu was not any more or less brutal than all the other deaths that happen in the Mahabharata war. But it is painted as brutal and unfair because of Arjuna’s indiscriminate reaction to it. In reality, given the circumstances, Abhimanyu’s death was par for the course of what one might expect in a war.
Read on to learn more about why Abhimanyu was killed so brutally.
(For answers to all Abhimanyu-related questions, see Abhimanyu: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero.)
Was it brutal?
The first question we must ask about this idea is whether the manner of Abhimanyu’s killing was brutal at all. Yes, all violence is brutal, but the war of Kurukshetra was a brutal affair all-round.
During the first twelve days of the battle, before Abhimanyu gets trapped in Drona’s Chakravyuha, a number of brutal acts of killing take place. For instance:
- Bhagadatta, a great Pragjyotisha ruler who once pledged allegiance to Yudhishthir and later chose to fight for Duryodhana, is killed by Arjuna.
- Bhishma, the grandfather of the Kuru princes, is tricked by the Pandavas into relinquishing his arms. Arjuna shoots at him from behind another warrior – which Bhishma comments on as cowardly.
- Several thousands of unnamed common soldiers give up their lives for this meaningless feud between powerful cousins that cannot come to a compromise about their wealth.
Was the killing of Abhimanyu, therefore, any more brutal than the other acts of violence that Kurukshetra sees over those eighteen days?
My personal opinion is no, it wasn’t.
Why does the image of Abhimanyu’s death being ‘brutal’ or ‘unfair’ persist, then? Chiefly, it is because the Pandavas decide to use the death of Abhimanyu as an excuse to break fair-fighting rules in the future.
For example, Satyaki cites the example of Abhimanyu’s death as justification for severing the head of Bhurishrava on the fourteenth day, when the latter has already given up his arms and sat down to meditate.
Dhrishtadyumna uses Satyaki and Abhimanyu as precedents to kill Drona – again when the acharya is engaged in meditation.
More than anything, it is Arjuna who takes the death of Abhimanyu as a personal affront. Instead of shrugging it off as yet another casualty of war, he takes it upon himself to take a vow of revenge to retaliate.
And of all the people who have played a part in Abhimanyu’s death on that day, Arjuna directs his ire at Jayadratha.
Jayadratha is not even one of the warriors that fight against Abhimanyu on this day. He is not even present inside the Chakravyuha.
His great sin – according to Arjuna – is that he guards the mouth of the array so well that he severs the connection between Abhimanyu and his reinforcements. He thus becomes the chief reason for Abhimanyu venturing out alone into the Chakravyuha.
But hang on a second. It is Drona who designed the Chakravyuha, cold-blooded in his desire to capture at least one Pandava atiratha. It is Drona who commandeers everything that happens inside the formation against Abhimanyu.
It is Drona who gives Karna the idea to shoot at Abhimanyu from behind him. It is Drona who disarms the young boy. Besides him, Kripa, Kritavarma and Ashwatthama play supporting roles – actually inflicting damage on Abhimanyu.
And yet Arjuna chooses Jayadratha as his target for the next day. Why?
The only answer that suggests itself to me is that Arjuna is too attached to Drona to take a vow against him. Jayadratha also happens to have history against the Pandavas, so Arjuna has premeditated anger toward him.
He cannot possibly rage against Kripa (his first mentor), Kritavarma (a close friend of Krishna’s), Ashwatthama (the son of his preceptor) or Karna (he has already taken a vow against him). So he chooses Jayadratha.
The context surrounding Abhimanyu’s death, of course, is that the two sides are at war. They are not playing pretend. Abhimanyu is out to kill as many Kauravas as he can, and the Kauravas have to stop him.
Often, the only way to stop your enemy from killing you – is by killing him first.
Especially on the thirteenth day of the Mahabharata war, a few different elements fall into place:
- Drona is on the cusp of shame after having failed to capture Yudhishthir two days in a row. Today, he is desperate to make good his promise that he will kill ‘at least one Pandava atiratha’.
- Yudhishthir is left with no choice but to ask Abhimanyu to help him break the Chakravyuha, because Arjuna and Krishna – the only other two warriors capable of this – drive away to fight the Samshaptakas.
- The project, in theory, is that Abhimanyu will break open the formation and the other heroes of the Pandava army – Bhima, Nakula, Satyaki and so on – will follow him closely, thus keeping the breach open.
- But Jayadratha’s heroics ensure that Abhimanyu is cut off from his support, and that he is trapped alone inside.
Thus, a number of factors come together to ensure that the Kauravas do not show any mercy toward Abhimanyu inside the formation.
Also, there is the small matter of how Abhimanyu conducts himself once he knows that he is trapped.
The moment Abhimanyu learns that he is trapped inside the Chakravyuha, he essentially has three options:
- He can turn around and try to retrace his path. In other words, he can try and find an exit. This is a viable option because he has just entered the formation, and all his reinforcements have been cut off.
- He can seek out Drona and ask for mercy. While this is unbecoming of a Kshatriya, if he had done so, one cannot imagine Drona saying no.
- He can assume that his hours on Earth are numbered, and forge ahead in a blinding flash of glory.
As it happens, Abhimanyu chooses the third option, which also happens to be the most heroic. And as befits a man who has nothing to lose, he throws out all the rules of ‘fair fighting’. He fights everyone in his path – whether they’re foot soldiers or chariot-warriors.
He also uses celestial weapons against men who have no defence against them. In taking these two steps, Abhimanyu breaks tradition first.
All in all, the behaviour of the Kaurava soldiers and warriors inside the Chakravyuha is more generous than one assumes at first glance.
Abhimanyu manages to kill a number of common soldiers, and fights six atirathas one after the other with success. He kills Lakshmana, Duryodhana’s son. He inflicts grievous wounds on the likes of Karna, Drona and Kripa.
While all this is happening, not once does Abhimanyu get attacked by a rogue element from outside his line of vision. All his battles are above board, and happen after a challenge has been thrown and accepted.
Only as a matter of desperation, Drona finally relents and allows one indiscretion: that Karna destroy Abhimanyu’s bow from behind him. After that, Abhimanyu is again left alone to challenge foot soldiers and mace fighters.
The death of Abhimanyu occurs at the end of a long mace duel that he has with the son of Duhsasana. In fact, Abhimanyu almost wins this duel, which is impossible if the chariot-riding atirathas had decided to shoot him from their perches.
All in all, therefore, Abhimanyu is not killed particularly brutally. But Arjuna and the Pandavas use his death as a rallying cry to propel themselves to victory.
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