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The Chakravyūha or Padmavyūha, 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.
The various vyūhas (military formations) were studied by the Kauravas and Pandavas alike. Most of them can be beaten using a counter-measure targeted specifically against that formation. It is important to observe that 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.
Abhimanyu and the Chakravyūha
The Chakravyūha or Padmavyūha was a special formation (Vyūha), and knowledge of how to penetrate it was limited to only a handful of warriors on the Pandavas' side, namely Abhimanyu, Arjuna, Krishna and Pradyumna. However, to the Pandavas' disappointment, Pradyumna, son of Krishna, chose not to participate in the Kurukshetra war. Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, knew how to penetrate the Vyūha but not how to exit it, and this lead to his tragic death. It is explained that Abhimanyu learned the required technique when he was still inside his mother Subhadra's womb when Arjuna discussed the formation and its conquest with his wife Subhadra. Subhadra fell asleep as Arjuna was explaining, and with his lesson still incomplete, Arjuna was called away by Krishna for the Khandava Forest extermination. Arjuna never got to tell Subhadra how to escape from the Padmavyūha once inside it.
The young Abhimanyu, due to lack of this knowledge, was killed in battle during the thirteenth day of the Kuruskshetra war as he was persevering without success to take himself out of the Chakravyūha. The Mahabharata also describes how the rules of war were broken by Kauravas to kill Abhimanyu. After Abhimanyu had penetrated the sixth tier of the spiral formation, all the great Kaurava heroes, older and more experienced than him, engaged him simultaneously. This was an act against the rules of Dharmayuddha, which prohibits multiple fighters from taking on a lone warrior at once.
The thirteenth day of Mahabharata War
The thirteenth day of Mahabharata War is remembered for the construction of Chakravyūha by Dronacharya. It was a very special day both for Kauravas and Pandavas. On this day, Jayadratha from the Kauravas side and Abhimanyu from the Pandavas side played a pivotal role. Jayadratha was very effective in stopping four of the five pandavas from entering Chakravyūha (by making use of a boon granted to him by Lord Shiva); Abhimanyu was very effective in holding all the Kaurava Mahārathis (Great Charioteers, colloquially 'Great Warriors') at bay and thereby preventing the advancement of Kaurava forces towards the Pandavas.The padmavyuha was already created by Drupath when Hasthinapura attacked Panchalam for Dronacharya. Drupatha captured all the 100 sons of Dhrutharastra in the battle. But Arjuna penetrated and destroyed the padmavyuha.
On many websites, the Chakravyuha is depicted as outward facing concentric circles standing one inside another and moving sideways (rotating). This 'moving' formation (circles rotating within each other) is impossible to achieve and maintain in battle conditions.
If someone is interested, he can get 10 of his friends to stand in outward facing circle and try moving sideways i.e. rotate the circle around its centre. Then get another group of people to throw stones or paper missiles at them and see the results. Within 10 steps of moving sideways in outward facing concentric circles, people will start stumbling and falling over each other. If we add chariots, horses, elephants, etc. to it and make them move sideways, it would be utter chaos. There would be no need to destroy such a formation. It would stumble and destroy itself in due course.
Probably some poet or artist who had never studied military history produced the fantastic fancy drawing showing maze-like concentric circles and people who are neither from the army nor have ever studied military history went on copying and justifying that.
Instead, "The game of Kabaddi was formed from Chakravyuha formation" actually gives a clue. It is a straight line with three wings. That shape sort of resembles the lotus flower arrangement (padma vyuha) which appears to have three distinct directions or wings. The enemy is enticed to attack the centre (typically) or even one of the wings. While the enemy is attacking one wing, the other two mobile wings move around him, encircling and trapping / killing him. So the padma vyuha or line arrangement with three wings, transforms into encirclement i.e. chakra vyuha.
Encirclement (either starting from a line formation or in double pincer movement) is a classical military formation and has been in use for many centuries. Similar tactics have been used by Hannibal to beat the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE, by the Germans in the early phases of WW-2 against the Russians, by the Russians when they encircled and destroyed the German 6th army at Stalingrad (late 1942 and early 1943), etc. Those interested can study the battles which have been recorded by many historians and understand how real "chakravyuha" is formed and operated.
The outward facing maze-like concentric circles moving sideways i.e. rotating within each other is pure fantasy, impossible to execute even for disciplined human beings (let alone horses and elephants who would either be required to move sideways like crabs - which they cannot or they would need to be facing at ninety degrees to the enemy to move along periphery of the circle - which renders the warriors riding them hopeless with their flanks exposed to the enemy). As such, this fancy maze or circles rotating within circles has no military value or practicability. People were on that battlefield to kill each other. Not to enter a fancy maze and find cheese at the centre.
Encirclement gives a good idea about how encirclement tactics work against mobile as well as static enemies. It also gives a huge list of battles which can be studied to understand how real military chakravyuha works.
There is another defensive outward facing circular / semi-circular formation called Laager. This is made by forming a circle of wagons (wagon long axis aligned along the tangent to the circle but men behind them facing outwards). This was commonly used when the early European settlers fought the highly mobile Native Americans.
This is mobile formation but not 'mobile while formed' i.e. it's components are mobile and can be arranged in outward facing circle while facing the enemy (either numerically superior or highly mobile). But these do not have rotating concentric outward facing circles. Instead it was formed in place, was static during the battle and then dismantled.
Similarly the famous square in which the Marathas marched in the initial phase of Third Battle of Panipat was a formation in which they marched all facing in one direction, stopped when faced by Ahmed Shah Abdali and fought facing in his direction; not spread over 360 degrees outward i.e. everyone looking in different direction.