Friday, July 20, 2012

Chakravyuha - the deadliest of the formations

One of the most secretive military formation, the mythical Chakravyuha, and why exactly Arjun was the only one who knew how to break it? 

Chakravyuha - the deadliest of the formations & Arjun

Just yesterday only, I was watching the wonderful animated movie "Arjun – The Warrior Prince", which is incidentally the first proper animated movie to come out of Indian movie industry and is head and shoulders above in its quality than all previous attempts till date. Of course Walt Disney pictures were involved in the making of this movie and helped with their knowhow, as Disney touch was evident across most of the scenes. 
Arjun aiming at the Fish, from underwater during the Swayamvar of Draupadi, in the movie "Arjun -The Warrior Prince". 

However, this is just the good thing about watching this movie. The better thing is about this story, which speaks about a very brief part of the epic, and showcases the immense skills and valour of Arjun, the great warrior, when he single-handedly defeated an entire opponent army while breaching effortlessly through the most bewitching of all military formations – ‘Chakravyuha’. This made me revisit the story behind why Chakravyuha became such a legend, and I put my efforts on uncovering the mystery. 

To be honest, anyone who knows a few things about Indian epics, definitely must have heard about Mahabharata (Sanskrit Mahābhārata महाभारत, IPA: [məɦaːˈbʱaːrət̪ə]), which is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the RamayanaAnd it is needless to say that, how fascinating the story and corresponding backstories are from this hugely rich epic, and I would suggest anyone who loves reading to at least try to read this once in his/her lifetime. It definitely is among the greatest of them all. 

I have been fortunate enough to read this story during my childhood days as an abridged version and watch the same as a part of Sunday special tele-serials which seemed to be fairly accurate enough. Particularly since, except for representations and acting skills in general in most cases, and barring some of the stories, this tele-serial tried to cover as much as they could, which was an epic effort nonetheless. Of course, I have read the translation of the complete version years later, and it took me more than 3 months to just finish the book, even when I was totally engrossed with the events. 
The complete version of Mahabharata book, with English translations. 

To me, the “Mahabharata” is unquestionably the greatest epic of all time. No other stories, comes even remotely anywhere close to it. Not in terms of the chronological canvas, or the hundreds of different and uniquely intriguing characters, or the fantastic intricacy of the storyline. People generally attribute the “Geeta” as the most important takeaway from the epic. But for me, each and every smallest of the incidents in this story is as fascinating nonetheless, as they all contributed to the epic conclusion and to the Indian culture in every sense. 

I have frequently wandered over the numerous little nuances of this story, while trying to figure out why things happened as the way they did, how exactly that ended up in the corresponding results and what are the justifications for certain actions. Furthermore, I was always fascinated in the layered nature of the tale, as in every scene it usually contained layers of message, and I usually tried to figure out the hidden message in them all. 

Thus, while watching the aforementioned movie, I happened to rekindle the learning side of mine to revisit the mysterious and mythical formation of Chakravyuha. Particularly since, Chakravyuha was later used by the Kauravas, under the command of their legendary general and martial arts teacher Dronacharya, to trap and kill Arjun’s famous son Abhimanyu, the myth of Chakravyuha increased even more. Thus, I have always wandered about how exactly this Chakravyuha might look like, and why exactly it was so difficult to breach? Furthermore, why it was feared so much, and why apart from Arjun no one else could successfully destroy Chakravyuha for Pandavas? 

From my own reading, and consequent Internet research I have been trying to find the answers which I was seeking for. As with any epic that has been handed down through countless generations, the anecdotes from Mahabharata have been interpreted and presented in various ways by various people, over the years. One of the most famous being the Sunday 9am version tele-serial, courtesy B.R. Chopra which enchanted the nation hugely in the 90s. Although as I said before, it tried to portray the incidents as best as it could, all the while the real story being far more vast and with far more intricacies. Owing to these various sources, since I have encountered various interpretations of the Chakravyuha incident as well, I have tried to knit together a theory that satisfies most of them.


So, what is Chakravyuha?

From Wikipedia, the following definition can be found.
“The Padmavyuha (Sanskrit: पद्मव्यूह) or Chakravyuha (चक्रव्यूह) refers to a Military formation narrated in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.
The Chakravyuh or Padmavyuh, is a multi-tier defensive formation that looks like a blooming lotus (padma, पद्म) or disc (chakra, चक्र) when viewed from above. The warriors at each interleaving position would be in an increasingly tough position to fight. The formation was used in the battle of Kurukshetra by Dronacharya, who became commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army after the fall of Bhishma Pitamaha.”
 A depiction of the Padmavyuha or Chakravyuha formation as a labyrinth.
This depiction seems mostly accurate as it is more labyrinths oriented and is very close to the depiction of Chakravyuha in the ancient rock carvings, and ancient Indian temple structures as well (most notably in Belur of Hassan district in Karnataka).

Intricate rock carvings show, Abhimanyu entering the Chakra vyuha.
 The Chakravyuha and Military Formation Scene from the Mahabharata War, Belur, Halebid

However, there are other varieties of descriptions in different sources as well, most notably in the B.R. Chopra Sunday mega-serial, which has shown Chakravyuha as a formation consisting of 7 concentric circles of warriors rotating in unison.

The depiction of Chakravyuha in the tele-serial Mahabharat as shown by B.R. Chopra

Most of the colloquial art form describes Chakravyuha as a spiral though. The concept of spiral seems more legitimate as the warrior has to enter through layers after layers to properly reach the centre of the spiral labyrinth where the major opponent warriors are protected safely. According to some theorists, Chakravyuha consisted of four spirally winding circles of elephants, chariots, horses and infantry.
An artistic description of Chakravyuha. For the sake of simplicity, it is shown as a spiral. 

Although we can assume that the colloquial art forms usually were made without extreme details, and maybe a spiral form is too simple. However, the concentric circle is even simpler in that sense, so if Chakravyuha was concentric circles, then more numbers of references supporting that could have been found. So, apparently B.R. Chopra with his simplistic view of Chakravyuha is probably partially incorrect. As the concept of rotating labyrinth can be a more plausible explanation. 
A simplistic spiral description of Chakravyuha. 

However, it can be further argued that due to the easier nature of understanding for the spirals, in comparison to the mythical nature of the fabled Chakravyuha, possibly most of the art forms resorted to the idea of representing it as a spiral, or in some cases as concentric circles.

Furthermore the concurrent archaeological evidence suggests Chakravyuha as a form of a labyrinth.

The Mangarh fort, popularly known as the Piplu Fort, it is located some 30-35 kilometres away from Hamirpur district headquarters, in Himachal Pradesh. A replica of a labyrinthine design of Chakravyuha [चक्रव्यूह] that was created by Kauravas in the Mahabharata is present there till now. It is believed that when Pandav's reached that region during their exile period, they cleared the whole region within one day and made it a plane area. The replica of labyrinth was reported by ‘Aaj Tak - सबसे तेज’, an Indian news channel. The replica is no more in a good position because there is no reach of the state government or state tourism department or archeological department. 

People say that water would enter from one side, travel through mazes and come out of the other side.

Even the modern representations portray the Chakravyuha as a labyrinthine maze. Army from India, Pakistan, China, Burma, Indonesia, Japan and a few more have made studies over this mythical formation. 
A modern thematic representation of Chakravyuha in an army headquarter in northern India. 

However, to counter the question that why it could not be breached straight up, a possible explanation can be drawn from the idea that, probably this labyrinth was rotating continuously. Hence, Abhimanyu as it is said in Mahabharata was equipped with the knowledge of entering the Chakravyuha at the right time and right place. This may suggest that, Abhimanyu knew exactly when the labyrinth rotates in its orbit and may have a weak link and consequent further weak links to breach. Furthermore all the Maharathis (great warriors) from Kaurava side guarded various entries for each of these inner layers, which seems kind of an opening is presented for the one who is intending to breach, while a battle with a great warrior is required to get through that opening. 

Hence in most logical case, a Chakravyuha must be a multi-layered circular labyrinthine maze where each of the layers are rotating in same or opposite direction, in which weak and strong warriors are strategically placed, and each of the layers are presented with possible openings which are closely guarded by one of the main highly ranked warriors and his personal troops.

Who all had the knowledge of Chakravyuha? How did Abhimanyu get to know about the tactics to breach Chakravyuha?

As part of their Martial Arts, Battle intelligence and various weapons training sessions that they had to undertake, various vyuhas (military formations) were studied by the Kauravas and Pandavas alike. Most of these vyuhas can be beaten using a counter-measure targeted specifically against that formation. To successfully implement any vyuha in the form of battle described in Mahabharata, it was important to place the powerful fighters in those positions where they could inflict the maximum damage to the opposing force, or defend the attacks from key warriors of the opposition. 

The Chakravyuha/Padmavyuha was a special formation and only a few exclusive Pandava warriors, namely, Arjun, Abhimanyu, Krishna and Pradyumna knew how to crack and penetrate this vyuha. However to the Pandavas disappointment, Pradyumna did not participate in the Mahabharata war, Pradyumna’s father, lord Krishna officially did not participate in the war. Arjun's son Abhimanyu only knew how to penetrate the Chakravyuha but not how to exit the formation. He learned the techniques to enter the formation when he was still inside the womb of his mother Subhadra, since her Husband, Arjun was discussing the formation and its conquest with her. Ironically, Subhadra fell asleep (as she found this knowledge of war quite boring) while Arjun was explaining, and Arjun was called away by Krishna for the Khandava forest extermination in the middle of his lesson. Thus, Arjun could not finish explaining to Subhadra how to escape from the Padmavyuha, and Abhimanyu never got the chance to know the technique to break free from Chakravyuha. 
Arjun after his marriage with Subhadra, was explaining the battle tactics of various formations. Subhadra had Abhimanyu in her womb, who learnt most tactics then. However, Abhimanyu could learn only partially about Chakravyuha. 

Hence without the knowledge of escaping from the Chakravyuha, Abhimanyu was thus killed in the Kurukshetra War while trying to break free this formation. Mahabharata also has references wherein the rules of war were broken by Kauravas to kill Abhimanyu. After Abhimanyu penetrated the sixth tier of spiral formation, all the Kaurava warriors attacked him in unison, though the main killer was Jayadratha. It was against the rules of Dharmayuddha, which stated that multiple warriors should not attack a single warrior. 

Apart from Arjun, Krishna, Abhimanyu and Pradyumna, also Dronacharya and Bhishma knew how to breach Chakravyuha, as both Vishma and Dronacharya formed Chakravyuha in separate occasions. Also possibly Karna knew how to breach Chakravyuha too, as he was always referred as equal to Arjun in every respect (although no instance of him breaching Chakravyuha is known). Finally, Aniruddha who was the son of Pradyumna and grandson of Lord Krishna also knew about the breaching techniques for Chakravyuha.

How many times Chakravyuha was formed during the Kurukshetra war?

In the Mahabharata story, the Chakravyuha was formed 3 times in total. Chakravyuha was once formed just before the Kurukshetra war by Bhishma to counter Arjun, who was defending the Kaurava invasion on the kingdom of Virat (insisted by Duryodhan and aimed at uncovering the anonymity of Pandavas, during their 1 year anonymous exile, following the previous 12 years exile – the success would have sent Pandavas for another 12 years exile). Arjun single-handedly defeated all Kauravas including Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Karna, Ashwathwama, Kritavarma, Jayadratha, Shalya, Dushshashan and Duryodhan. 
After the completion of 13 years of exile, Arjun is approaching the Chakravyuha of entire Kaurava army alone, while protecting the kingdom of Virat, with young Uttar Kumar as his charioteer. 

The second time Chakravyuha was formed to capture Yudhishthir during the 13th day of the war. Abhimanyu was protecting Yudhishthir and Arjun was distracted into another battle with Samshaptakas (mercenaries who vow to return from the battlefields only upon victory, or die) by Kaurava’s master-plan (as Arjun could easily destroy Chakravyuha). Chakravyuha was rotating along the battlefield and was destroying Pandava’s army in thousands (as Chakravyuha is hugely offensive formation as well). Lacking Arjun, Yudhishthir and other Pandavas were hopeless and without any counter-measures. Abhimanyu suggested that he can breach the vyuha, but does not know how to come out of it. Although Yudhishthir initially was not inclined to let his 16 year old nephew to lead such a dangerous counter-attack, but seeing the circumstances he agreed by having a plan of other 4 Pandavas to closely follow Abhimanyu into the vyuha and break it open from inside. However, as soon as Abhimanyu breached through the first layer, Jayadratha who was guarding the opening, shut it down from other Pandavas. Owing to a boon that he possessed from lord Shiva that no Pandavas except Arjun could defeat him for one day, he cut the connection between Abhimanyu and other Pandavas, thus trapping Abhimanyu within the Chakravyuha. The other Pandava brothers kept on fighting from outside but without any effect. Abhimanyu meanwhile defeated all of the Kauravas single-handedly as he kept on breaching the Chakravyuha till he reached the centre. Being desperate, the Kauravas resorted to unethical means (the rule of engagement in the war was one is to one battle at any point of time) by joining hands and attacking on Abhimanyu together, all at once. Abhimanyu fought with valour and bravado, but in the end was killed by combined efforts of all Kaurava Maharathis. Upon the knowledge of this shameful act on his beloved son, made a resolute Arjun take an oath that by the next day’s sunset he will kill Jayadratha (as he was the person who primarily cut down the connection unethically, while he was shown mercy previously by Pandavas), or else he would himself jump on a burning pyre.
Abhimanyu fights bravely, alone against all the Maharathis from Kaurava side, who breaks the rule of the war and attack together against one. In the end, Abhimanyu being totally unarmed, tried to fend off everyone while holding the wheels of his chariot, but was brutally murdered. 

The third time, Chakravyuha was made was in the 14th day of the war, to protect Jayadratha from getting killed by Arjun (which according to Arjun’s vow will result into Arjun’s self-immolation, and will further result into an easy victory for Kauravas). Chakravyuha (Wheel or Disc formation), Sarpavyuha (Snake formation) and Soochivyuha (Needle formation) were made to protect Jayadratha. Consequently Arjun broke all the formations with his incredible skills and bravado (and some help from Lord Krishna as well), and by the end of the day killed Jayadratha, thereby completing his vow.
Arjun, upon knowing the treachery from Kauravas to murder his son, vows to kill Jayadratha by sunset of next day. he goes on a killing spree and kills more than hundred thousand people in a day before finally killing Jayadratha. 

What exactly was the technique for breaking into the Chakravyuha?

The rotating nature of Chakravyuha, gave it a unique advantage, as the warriors that made the Chakravyuha confronted any particular opponent very briefly, and each people attacked/defended in turn as the formation kept rotating. This strategy effectively nullified the plans from the opponents, which they might have devised against any particular warrior within Chakravyuha, and thus confused them off their strategies. 

The rotating Chakravyuha consisted of warriors of various calibres. The Other Pandavas or anyone in general could not breach it because of 2 primary reasons. Firstly, they usually attacked the stronger warriors in the ring and consequently were repelled. Secondly as soon as they started to get an upper hand on one particular warrior, the ring rotated and another Kaurava warrior confronted them. 

Abhimanyu overcame this strategy by attacking the warriors to the left and right of him, instead of the ones directly in front. As the layers of the ring rotated, the gap he had created to his left or right came in front of him and he penetrated the Chakravyuha accordingly. He repeated the same for all the further layers of the rings. 

Another version of the story says that Arjun mentioned a “right time to enter” the Chakravyuha, also the “right words to enter” as well. This seems to indicate that apparently there was some sort of key to solve the jigsaw puzzle, using which one can break the Chakravyuha. This may indicate the weak points of the Chakravyuha to attack probably. This further approves the fact that probably the rotating wheel formation must be having its inner labyrinthine maze and its corresponding layers rotating too, also possibly in different directions and in varying speed too. That complex nature of coordination would require a precise time to attack, during which the formation could be its most vulnerable with a possible alignment of an attack path through the various layers. The right time, and right word can thus signify the time to find such possible course of alignment within the Chakravyuha, and the exact usage of weapons (assuming various war cries were associated with various weapons) during the attack.

Why Abhimanyu could not break free from Chakravyuha?

As I have mentioned before, the story says, Abhimanyu couldn’t learn about how to break free, as he could hear only the part of getting in, while he was an unborn child in the womb of Subhadra. Thus, as he entered the first layer of Chakravyuha, the rotating nature of Chakravyuha closed the entrance behind him, hence trapping him inside. Furthermore Jayadratha tackled the rest of the Pandava brothers who couldn’t penetrate the formation likewise (also, Jayadratha used the boon that he received from God Mahadev, by which he was invincible against anyone but Arjun and Lord Krishna), while Arjun and Krishna were engaged in a separate fight with Samshaptakas (mercenaries who vow to return from battlefields only upon victory or death) during this saga. 

As he breached through each of the further layers of the Chakravyuha, Abhimanyu continued to defeat each every great warriors including Jayadratha, Dronacharya, Karna and Ashwathama in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th layers respectively. After defeating Dushshashan and Kripacharya in the 5th ring, when he entered the 6th ring, an enraged Duryodhan attacked him. Abhimanyu defeated him too ad left him bleeding and chariot less, but did not kill him to protect the oath taken by Bheem (his uncle and Pandava brother). Abhimanyu killed Lakshaman who came to fight him while helping his father Duryodhan. Upon this a further enraged Duryodhan ordered everyone to attack simultaneously, as in one-on-one fight (which was the rule of engagement for the war), Abhimanyu was unbeatable, and was causing extreme damage within the vyuha. Thus, all Kaurava warriors joined hands to attack him in unison (illicitly), which resulted in his demise. 
An artistic representation of Abhimanyu, where it shows how all the Kaurava Maharathis attacked him simultaneously. 

However, additional reasons for his inability to break free can be the resulting fatigue, after fighting with number of opponents while getting in. Also, the mental factor could creep in, from the fact of being in the centre of such a deadly vyuha and in the middle of so many deadly opponent warriors. Being in the middle of the formation with 7-8 Maharathis and fighting them, instead of 1-2 Maharathis while penetrating the formation, could put anyone in immense pressure. 

Also, probably the combined attack from the Kauravas nullified his tactics to break free in the same manner of breaking in (also perhaps the timing sequence of breaking for the exit was disrupted; hence he had to wait longer in the middle, which exposed him vulnerably).

The exact answer may not be found, as even Ved Vyas, who recited this great epic, himself did not know the secret (only known by Lord Krishna, Bhishma, Arjun, Dronacharya, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, Karna and Abhimanyu). Hence the ancient secret may have been lost forever.

Was Chakravyuha a physical formation, or was it an allegorical alliteration of a deadly method?

According to some of the theories, Chakravyuha may not be a physical disc formation or full of labyrinth. These theories suggest Chakravyuha to be a representation of a brutal form of assault. Most suitably, Chakravyuha is a form of group assault to be most effective (hence it was implemented only after Bhishma’s fall, who had earlier set the rules of war being strictly one-on-one only). According to this theory Chakravyuha could represent a ring formation that could hover across battlefield and consume opponent soldiers within (once someone was consumed in the ring, was brutally killed by multiple opponents). Thus, fighting such a deadly war method can be psychologically very damaging. Thus, Chakravyuha that leaves such a mental scar can be a representation of a mental blockage too, which in later years might have been represented as a complex labyrinth by later literatures, thus attaining a mythical status. 
An artist's representation of Chakravyuha as a sacred code of cryptic knowledge, where reaching the centre requires extreme skills, as well as coming out of it. 

However, some other theorists say, it was a physical formation which caused devastation due to its strategic and military superiority as well as its psychological impact. Fighting the Chakravyuha can be mentally damaging, but it was a combination of a deadly formation and its corresponding psychological effect that escalated Chakravyuha to its mythical level. Placement of key warriors in strategic locations could cause mental stress for incoming force significantly. The knowledge of getting trapped inside due to the rotating nature of each layer can demoralise any warrior. 

Thus, one thing is confirmed, that irrespective of its physical formation; the psychological impact of Chakravyuha was huge. Hence mostly it is understood that Chakravyuha was a deadly formation which could kill too many people in a very short span of time, and its psychological impact was extreme. 

Why was not Chakravyuha implemented more often?

First of all, Kauravas did not implement Chakravyuha more often, primarily due to the presence of Arjun, who knew how to breach the Chakravyuha, as well as how to escape it successfully. Also, it is evident that when Chakravyuha is breached then it can cause a lot of damage for the warriors within the vyuha. Furthermore, Arjun had all the Divyastras (divine weapons of mass destruction) with him. So, he could easily kill everyone around him and cause carnage among Kauravas.
An idol of the divine chariot of Arjun, carrying him which being charioteered by Lord Krishna. 

Then implementation of Chakravyuha requires an excellent general to plan & execute it or else it can very easily backfire & end up confusing & decimating one’s own troops. Thus, Chakravyuha when implemented successfully could cause havoc in opposition army, but could backfire very easily if there are slightest of mistake in the coordination of the formation. Furthermore, the human cost involved was particularly large since, the Chakravyuha (even if formed correctly) would end up taking (as well as giving) lot of lives in a very short span of time. As it is known that on the 13th day of the war (on the day the Chakravyuha was implemented, only after distracting Arjun to another battle), more than half of their army died in both sides of the war. 

Furthermore Pandavas did not implement Chakravyuha themselves because; it requires an excellent general with full knowledge of it. Arjun was the only warrior among Pandavas with this knowledge. Also, Pandavas killed Kauravas by other methods anyway.

Why Abhimanyu was not taught either by Arjun or Krishna about the know-how to break the Chakravyuha?

According to Krishna, Abhimanyu was an incarnation of a very powerful demon named (Kalayvan) who was capable of killing him at a later point. Abhimanyu's only weakness is his partial knowledge about Chakravyuha. Hence, according to Krishna the Chakravyuha was indeed launched to kill Abhimanyu as this is the only way by which Abhimanyu can attain Moksha. Hence, Krishna never imparts the knowledge of "how to come out of Chakravyuha?" to Abhimanyu inspite of being his guru in Dwaraka. Thus, on the 13th day Lord Krishna does not give any clue to Arjun that the Chakravyuha was launched by Dronacharya inspite of foreseeing it. 

Another tale of Abhimanyu’s origin says, Abhimanyu is the reincarnation of Varchas, the son of the Moon god. When the Moon god was asked to let his son incarnate himself on earth by the other devas, he made a pact that his son will only remain on earth for 16 years as he could not bear to be separated from him. Abhimanyu was 16 years old when he died in the war. Hence, on the 13th day Krishna does not intervene while the Chakravyuha was formed by Dronacharya despite knowing that without adequate knowledge, Abhimanyu would get killed in the battle. 

Arjun was never the martial arts instructor for Abhimanyu, rather Krishna was. Now Krishna being the Lord Narayan himself, Arjun must have expected Abhimanyu to be properly trained, and must not have checked about his training at all. 

Furthermore, Lord Krishna knew that Abhimanyu was so powerful a warrior, that he could alone defeat and kill all the Kauravas, which would not let the Pandava vows to be fulfilled of killing the Kauravas on their own, and Krishna did not want Mahabharata’s hero to be anyone else other than Arjun (who was his devotee). Also, Krishna knew that with the knowledge of such treachery from Kauravas to kill his son, Arjun would be furious and would be killing all the Kauravas with less guilt in his conscience. 
Arjun's favourite son, Abhimanyu gets slain within the Chakravyuha by 7 Kaurava Maharathis. 

Why did not Abhimanyu teach other Pandavas to breach the formation as well, before entering it himself?

Pandavas might not have expected Dronacharya to use the Chakravyuha formation in the battle and hence might not have discussed the way to enter and exit from it amongst them. And when they saw the formation in the middle of the battlefield, Abhimanyu did not have enough time to explain the method of entering it to the others. 

Perhaps Pandava’s expectations were legitimate, considering the fact that they also knew that Chakravyuha usually kills a lot of lives from either of the sides, and backfires too often. Furthermore they must have been quite happy with the knowledge that Arjun among them knew all the tactics and techniques of each and every formation. Thus, if need persists, then Arjun can counter the Chakravyuha.

Also, it is understandable that perhaps the knowledge of penetrating the Chakravyuha, and the synchronisation of the right time, were too difficult for everyone to learn. That further explains, why the knowledge of countering Chakravyuha is so limited. 

Why would anyone try to breach Chakravyuha, particularly when it is almost impregnable?

Chakravyuha is as much as a deadly defensive formation, just as much as it is an offensive one. It rotates along its axis at the centre with each layer rotating in different directions at varied speeds, which makes it a great defensive formation, and almost impossible to penetrate. 

However, Chakravyuha also revolves in its orbit across the battlefield, and destroys everything it encounters, which allows it to be an offensive and destructive force. 

Hence, once Chakravyuha is formed, the opposition cannot just sit back, as it would roam around in the battlefield and destroy the opposing army (if implemented properly, else it would backfire). A method has to be devised rather quickly to stop the advancement of the Chakravyuha, or else it would impart a lot of casualty, for the opposition. 

In the case of Abhimanyu, particularly to stop the rate of casualty in Pandava army, and to stop the Kaurava plans to capture Yudhishthir, Abhimanyu decided he can use his knowledge to break into Chakravyuha.

The other versions of Mahabharata also say, Yudhishthir accepted the challenge to invade a defensive formation of Chakravyuha, with the knowledge that Arjun and Krishna knew how to break it. Now, when Arjun and Krishna was diverted into another battle with Samshaptakas, Abhimanyu was compelled to step forward with his incomplete knowledge. However, this theory does not explain the fact that, when did a man of wisdom like Yudhishthir accept the challenge? Was it in the presence of Arjun or not? If it is in the presence of Arjun, then why did not Arjun send someone else to fight with Samshaptakas, since he and Krishna was the only people with the knowledge of Chakravyuha. And, if Yudhishthir has accepted this challenge in the absence of Arjun, then how come he is called wise king at all? 

Thus,I would believe that, the version of accepting challenge does not fully justify the logic, and I would believe that Chakravyuha was rather a defensive as well as an offensive formation. Hence to stop it, in the absence of Arjun, the helpless Pandava relied on Abhimanyu to break in and stop its progress. 
A modern badge showing a spiral formation of Chakravyuha, while carrying the name of Abhimanyu in the Indian Navy. 

What are the factors of Abhimanyu’s death and what are the messages of the Chakravyuha saga?

Abhimanyu’s death has number of factors, namely Krishna’s will (for not letting Arjun tackle it instead), violation of the rules of war by Kauravas (since none of them could fight with Abhimanyu one-on-one), Abhimanyu’s thirst for glory (entering the vyuha, without the knowledge of escaping), Abhimanyu’s complacency (he mocked most of his opponents before he engaged Dronacharya in the battle), Yudhishthir’s inability to have a contingency plan (in absence of Arjun), Yudhishthir’s inability to retreat strategically (by having proper defensive formation), Samshaptaka’s involvement (as they engaged Arjun into a fearsome battle, and distracted him to the other side of the battleground, while Chakravyuha was formed), and finally Jayadratha’s boon (by which he could be invincible against all the Pandavas other than Arjun). 

In yudha kanda as Chakravyuha is described, it has been always depicted as a formation of utmost mystery that induces fear in the heart of any mortal. Thus, Chakravyuha resembles mystery as well as the highest challenge that requires skills of highest level to survive. Hence, it can be a trap for anyone who is not skilled in the highest order. Further it also says that the trap may not be fair, as some people may forget the ethics pretty easily in the heat of battle. 

The message from the Chakravyuha saga is that, average people are like Abhimanyus, and not like Arjuns. Lot of people know how to go deep into the subject, unravelling the mysteries in modern science, with brilliant and dynamic intellect, uncovering the mysteries of the nature, by going deeper and deeper. However, mostly people don’t know how to come back. Human cannot keep quiet and dig the traps for themselves in the process. Therefore it is necessary that people should try to become Arjuns while dealing with the Chakravyuha and not Abhimanyu. 

Was Abhimanyu’s entry into the Chakravyuha an act of folly or rather a heroic one?

The story of Mahabharata says that, forced by circumstances, Pandavas decided to let Abhimanyu take charge and break in the Chakravyuha. However owing to Jayadratha’s boon from Lord Shiva that he used to cut off the rest of the Pandavas to follow Abhimanyu, the dynamics of the decisions changed radically. Abhimanyu was left to fend for himself against the entire Kaurava army. 

It is said that, Abhimanyu didn’t listen to his charioteer before engaging in battle with Dronacharya. He even mocked almost every opponent, which implies his pride and complacency may have been an important factor for his eventual downfall. In a mighty battle that followed, he slaughtered ordinary enemy warriors and mighty heroes alike. Abhimanyu fought valiantly single-handedly slaying several warriors who came in his way including Duryodhan's son Lakshaman. Among the others who were killed were Ashmakaís son, Shalya's younger brother, Shalyaís son Rukmaratha, Drighalochana, Kundavedhi, Sushena, Vasatiya, Kratha and numerous other great warriors. He wounded Karna and made him flee, making Dushshasan faint in the battlefield such that he had to be carried off by others. 

Upon seeing the carnage, and after getting defeated himself, Duryodhan decided to abandon the rules of war and ordered a simultaneous attack, and consequently murdered an unarmed Abhimanyu brutally. 

After the knowledge of Abhimanyu’s illicit murder came to Arjun and other Pandav’s ears with the details of the treachery from Kauravas, this actually helped them to annihilate their army swiftly, without any significant guilty conscience henceforth. In fact, the involvement of Karna in this shameful act was reiterated by Lord Krishna to Arjun, when Arjun refused to kill Karna when he was unarmed and was helplessly trying to bring his chariot wheel up from the ground, after it got stuck. Subsequently Arjun killed an unarmed Karna to avenge his favourite son's death. 

Arjun - the greatest warrior of Mahabharata, finally shed all inhibitions upon the knowledge of treachery from the Kauravas to murder his son by illegal means. 

Thus, Abhimanyu’s death by illegal means served as an important catalyst for the Great War to finish within next 5 days. However then it seems that, the sacrifice of Abhimanyu was preordained by the gods to invoke the wrath within Pandava brothers, and especially Arjun who could defeat everyone on his own.

So, Abhimanyu’s death was pre-arranged by gods primarily. Hence, although his folly is there partially in his acts, but overall his act is more heroic, as he almost changed what was designed against him, and almost could be equal to his father, the great warrior Arjun. 

Thus, Abhimanyu is justifiably remembered as a glorious and tragic hero who lost his life in the great battle while breaching the mythical and deadly Chakravyuha. 


I have completed my article on the basis of Internet based searches, my own reading and understanding of the great epic Mahabharata, the various representations of Chakravyuha in teleserials, movies and research documents. Anyone who can further refine this article is most welcome to share his/her views here accordingly.

Finally, as an ending note, for anyone interested to have a look at the episode (from the 90s Teleserial made by B.R. Chopra) which has shown the Chakravyuha, and the demise of Abhimanyu, can have a look here.

P.S. - The movie which was the reason why I started my research, was an absolute treat to watch. There were number of facts that were not shown there, but none of that can dilute the fact that produced by UTV Motion Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures, here is an animation film that works-wonders for children and eminently watchable for adults, including the skeptics who think animation is not their cup of tea. Moreover, it shows that India too can produce some talent in the world of animation. And if the current step is any indication, then with the tall-dark-handsome mythical superhero Arjun, the step seems to be definitely a right one.

P.P.S. - An ancient map of India during the story of Mahabharata.

References :

  • Mahabharata : Sanskrit Text with English Translation. Written by Ved Vyas, Translated by M.N. Dutt
  • "Mahabharat" teleserial as shown by B.R. Chopra
  • "Arjun - The Warrior Prince" a movie by Arnab Chaudhuri