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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 led 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.
However, Chakravyuha being a circular formation with outer most line facing their left is one possibility of defensive formation which will allow enemy to surround the army. This formation may have following advantages:-
1. The front soldiers have their right hand in their front for fighting (the majority population is right-handed), giving them a good stance to ‘cut and run’ strategy. For an army with majority of left-handed the direction may be opposite to put the stronger hand in front of the soldier.
2. Rotating and facing to one side has two distinct effects:-
i. The soldier is in a very favourable position to attack the enemy standing on his front-left in an anti-clockwise rotating formation.
ii. The soldier can’t defend himself properly from the enemy standing in front-right, relies completely on the comrade following him, and moves towards left in order to distance himself from enemy on front-right. This movement will give the formation facing left an anti-clockwise rotation.
This formation will have arcs (and not complete circles) rotating within each other, and will be possible in large flat plans. The rotation of second line will be slower than the front line, and so on, with a calmer centre. As the soldiers of front line fall, the second line soldiers will replace the fallen soldiers to close the gaps.
A maze-like formation with concentric circles is highly improbable to execute, though a rotating formation where the front line soldiers comes to inner lines and then again go back front line on their turn could be a possibility. Once rotational motion sets in, the soldiers, chariots, horses, elephants, etc. move in a stampede kind of situation which will have the sole motive of cut and run and escape the enemy from whom they can’t defend being in an unfavourable stance or being run over and trampled under their own army. Any break in the rotation will disorient the line, but the major flow of flags will always correct the direction of the formation. A well orchestrated Chakravyuha may inflict heavy casualty to enemies, though difficult to coordinate. A rotation too slow might not be effective and too fast might drain the stamina of the army. As the formation was considered to be very effective, breaking was essential for winning for the opponent, and as the flow of rotational movement will not stop until the motion of central part of formation is disrupted, entering the Chakravyuha was considered as the only possible solution.