Uttara pleads to Abhimanyu as he leaves for the war
Abhimanyu (Sanskrit: अभिमन्यु abhimanyu) was the son of Arjuna and Subhadra and his life story is documented in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. He was the nephew of Lord Krishna and was married to Uttarā, the princess of Matsya. Abhimanyu was killed on the 13th day of the Kurukshetra war. His son Parikshit was born after his death in the Mahabharata war.
Abhimanyu inherited both courage and fighting ability from his father, Arjuna, and his grandfather, Lord Indra. He was considered to be an equal to his father owing to his prodigious feats. Abhimanyu participated in the Mahabharata war when he was 16 years old. During the Mahabharata war, Abhimanyu held at bay many great warriors such as Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama, Duryodhana and Dushasana. It was felt that the only warrior on the Kurukshetra battlefield that could beat him was Bhishma.
Abhimanyu was the most illustrious of the Pandavas and Kauravas of his generation. By his virtue and capability, he was deemed to be the most eligible and qualified heir to the throne of Hastinapur. Abhimanyu's son, Parikshit became the sole heir to the Pandavas empire and succeeded Yudhisthira to the throne. It is also for King Parikshit that the Bhagavata was first recited.
Birth, Education and War
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Abhimanyu's education began while he was still in Subhadra's womb. He overheard Arjuna telling Subhadra the secrets of how to enter, destroy and exit from, various battle formations. Of these, it is of note, that he only heard how to enter (but not exit or destroy) the secret of the Chakravyuha formation as Subhadra fell asleep and thus Arjuna could not complete his explanation. Krishna, realizing that if Abhimanyu learns the entire strategy, he would tilt the balance entirely in favor of the Pandavas, stops Arjuna from continuing the lecture, therefore Abhimanyu learns only how to enter the Chakra Vyuha.
Abhimanyu spent his childhood in Dwaraka, his mother's city. He was trained by Pradyumna, the son of Sri Krishna, as well as Krishna's kinsmen Kritavarma and Satyaki. He was also influenced by his great warrior father Arjuna, and brought up under the guidance of Krishna and Balarama . His father arranged his marriage to Uttara, daughter of King Virata to seal an alliance between the Pandavas and the royal family of Virata, in light of the forthcoming Kurukshetra War. The Pandavas had been hiding incognito to live through the final year of their exile without being discovered, in Virata's kingdom of Matsya. Once the Pandavas disclosed their identity, Virata wished for Uttara to marry Arjuna. Arjuna being the guru of Uttara and considering her as his daughter, suggests for her to get married to Abhimanyu. Thus, Abhimanyu weds Uttara.
After sixth days of war, Abhimanyu is most recognized for destroying the banner and checking the advance of Bhishma on the first day of the way, Abhimanyu's short but eventful life gains the most prominence on the thirteenth day of the war when he is made to enter the powerful Padmavyuham battle formation of the Kaurava army. Drona had made this contraption in order to capture Yudhishthira. On the side of the Pandavas, only Pradyumna, Krishna, and Arjuna were aware of the secret technique to break this seven-tier defensive spiral formation used by Dronacharya. Susharma lures Arjuna away from the battlefield. This leaves Abhimanyu to break the Chakravyuh. Abhimanyu gladly accepts to help the Pandavas break the Chakravyuh but he also makes it known to them that his knowledge is limited to breaking in and didn't know how to exit. As promised, Abhimanyu enters the Chkravyuh followed by his kinsman. The spectacular formation and the speed with which Abhimanyu breaks through was overwhelming for the others and they were left far behind. Abhimanyu puts on a brave fight against all the atirathis.
Being the grandson of Lord Indra, god of mystical weapons and wars, Abhimanyu was a courageous and dashing warrior. Considered an ace archer, Abhimanyu was able to hold at bay great heroes like Drona, Duryodhana and Dushasana. Determined to exit the Chakravyuha by shattering it from within, Abhimanyu goes on rampage, reaching the heart of the trap. Fighting with such ferocity, none from the Kaurava side could best him in a one-on-one combat (dwandva yudha). Proceeding, Abhimanyu defeats all the maharathis in a one-on-one battle, highlights including Abhimanyu injuring Shalya so badly he cannot sit, and killing Brihadbala, the king of Kosala of the Ikshwaku dynasty. Abhimanyu really proves very expensive for the Kaurava army, destroying 3/4 of an akshouhini army single-handedly. Incensed at the admiration that those like Kripacharya and Drona express for Abhimanyu, Duryodhana attacks the boy. Sparing him so that his uncle Bhima can fulfill his oath, Abhimanyu leaves Duryodhana chariotless and weaponless, bleeding all over. With a single arrow, he also kills Duryodana's son Lakshmana, who had come to defend his father. Enraged, Duryodhana orders all the Kaurava maharathis to attack Abhimanyu, who with disgust, counters all their attacks. He then attempts to arrest Duryodhana. Stung by Duryodhana's doubts in his abilities, Drona suggests that Abhimanyu could only be killed through illicit means. His comments are met with agreement, and Karna snaps Abhimanyu's bow while Drona and Kripa kill Abhimanyu's horses and charioteers. Abhimanyu draws a sword and shield and continues to wreak havoc on the Kaurava army, only to be disarmed from afar once again. Drona destroys the hilt of the sword and Karna destroys the shield. The Kaurava forces team up and kill a defenseless Abhimanyu, who famously uses the wheel of a broken chariot to fend of attackers in lieu of his weapons. The wheel is broken into fragments by the enemy forces. Abhimanyu picks up a mace and pounces at Ashwathama. Ashwathama leaps back to avoid Abhimanyu. A mace battle between son of Dushasana (Durmashana) and Abhimanyu ensues. During this mace battle, both of them are thrown to the ground. But Durmashana rises first and hits the crown of Abhimanyu's head as the latter was in the process of rising up from the ground. Thus, Abhimanyu's life is ended.
In some retellings, there is no macefight with Durmashana. Abhimanyu is simply surrounded by multiple warriors and killed. In their blood fury, the warriors inappropriately dance and celebrate around Abhimanyu's lifeless body. On the 15th day of the war, Bhima mimics this celebration when he dances around the corpse of Dushasana, after having torn off his arms, ripped open his chest, and drunk his blood.
Arjuna's Great Revenge
News of the despicable acts committed on Abhimanyu reached his father Arjuna at the end of the day, who vows to kill Jayadratha the very next day by sunset, and failing to do so, commit suicide by self-immolation immediately.
The Kaurava army the next day places Jayadratha furthest away from Arjuna, and every warrior including the Samshaptakas (mercenaries to vow to return from battlefields only upon victory else death) attempts to prevent Arjuna from reaching anywhere close to Jayadratha. Only bypassing Dronacharya's chariot with his permission, Arjuna hacks through the Kaurava army and kills more than a hundred thousand soldiers and warriors in a single day. With the aid of Satyaki and Bhima, Arjuna is able to advance to the end of the Kaurava's formation, only to see Jayadratha being guarded by seven maharathis. Distracted by the coming sundown, Arjuna is unable to break through. Lord Krishna uses his powers to temporarily create an eclipse. In his haste to see Arjuna's death, Jayadratha abandons his protection and comes to taunt Arjuna. Lord Krishna removes the eclipse he has effectively created, and the sun comes out again. Before the Kauravas can take corrective action, Arjuna picks up his Gandiva and beheads Jayadratha. Arjuna's unerring Pashupathastra decapitates Jayadratha such that his head lands in his father's Lap (Jayadratha was blessed with a boon that the person who will cause his death will die immediately if his head landed on earth after he died) who is meditating; this unexpected action shocks Jayadratha's father and the head fell from his lap causing his death, and Arjuna's vow to kill Jayadratha by sunset that day and avenge Abhimanyu's death is fulfilled.
His son, Parikshit, born after his death, remains the sole survivor of the Kuru clan at the conclusion of the Mahābhārata war, and carries on the Pandava lineage. Abhimanyu is often thought of as a very brave warrior on the Pandava side, willingly giving up his life in war at a very young age. Abhimanyu was praised for his audacious bravery and absolute loyalty to his father, his uncles and to their cause.
As explained above, Abhimanyu, while in his mother's womb, heard from his father Arjuna, the secret of entering the Padmavyuham. However, he had only heard the entry portion of the strategy and not the exit portion as Subhadra had fallen asleep by then. It is believed that Krishna engineered Subhadra to sleep so that Abhimanyu can only partially hear the story.
According to mythology, Abhimanyu’s untimely death is attributed to his enmity with Lord Krishna in his previous birth. Abhimanyu in his previous birth was known as Abhikasura a demon. He was a friend of King Kans who left no stone unturned to kill his nephew Krishna. After Krishna killed Kans, Abhikasura vowed to take revenge on the former. Krishna, sensing the moves of the demon, wove a magic around Abhikasura, transformed him into an insect and captured him in a box. When Krishna’s sister Subhadra, after her wedding with Arjuna, accidentally opened the box, the insect got into her womb. Abhikasura was then born as Abhimanyu.
Krishna knew this and he rather sadly, prepared the ground for the death of his nephew and finally got him entrapped in Padmavyuha. When Arjuna was mourning the death of his son and squarely blamed Krishna for it, it was then Krishna explained Abhikasura’s reincarnation as Abhimanyu and the necessity for him, as the Supreme Power, to incinerate the evil force.
Abhimanyu and Ashwatama
Abhimanyu is often quoted as an example for his partial knowledge about Padmavyuha. Since, he knew how to penetrate the Chakravyuha, but did not know how to exit from it during the time of danger, he was not able to escape and was killed brutally. Similarly, Ashwatthama too had a partial knowledge in the context of Brahmastra. He only knew how to invoke it, but did not know how to withdraw it. It was only Arjuna who had complete knowledge of both Padmavyuham(to break and exit from it) and Brahmastra (to invoke and withdraw it).
In case of Ashwatthama, Dronacharya did not trust his son Ashwatthama the manner in which he trusted Arjuna. Hence, he taught him only to invoke Brahmastra, but did not teach him how to withdraw it. If an archer is aware of both the invocation and withdrawal of Brahmastra, then he can invoke it as many times as he wants. Hence, to avoid Ashwatthama from invoking Brahmastra multiple times, Dronacharya only gave a partial knowledge about it. After the battle of Kurukshetra Ashwatthama killed the sons of Draupadi. After knowing that Pandavas were alive and the ones actually dead were the Pandavas' offsprings, Ashwatthama invoked Brahmastra to kill the Pandavas; Arjuna also did the same to counter it.
The life of Abhimanyu is made into dramas and films in different languages. Some of them as part of the Mahabharata story, while others are done exclusively to tell his story beginning from his birth till his death in war.
- The story of Abhimanyu - The Hindu
- Dowson, John (1888). A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History, and Literature. Trubner & Co., London. p. 1.
- Media related to Abhimanyu at Wikimedia Commons
- Small story showing Abhimanyu's Valour
- Mahabharata Online