Caught in a Whirlpool

Mahabharata 40 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday 20 Dec 2009

Abhimanyu was the son of Arjuna and Krishna’s sister, Subhadra. Although every Pandava had a child by Draupadi, and by other wives, his is the most popular tale of all, evoking great anguish.

When Subhadra was pregnant with Abhimanyu, she often sat beside Arjuna as he discussed the art of archery and war with Krishna. Simply by hearing his father speak, Abhimanyu mastered the art of archery and war while he was still in the womb. Thus he was already a great warrior by the time he was born.

As Arjuna was in the middle of explaining how to break the whirlpool battle formation or the Chakra-vyuha, Krishna interrupted Arjuna and made him leave Subhadra’s side. As a result, Abhimanyu learnt only how to break into the formation, not how to break out. This event played a key role in the death of Abhimanyu sixteen years later. Why did Krishna interrupt Abhimanyu’s learning? The reason for this has triggered many folktales across India.

According to one story, Abhimanyu was actually a Rakshasa. His demonic qualities would emerge if he was able to survive the Kurukshetra war. Krishna knew this and so, through this action, ensured his death in the war itself. According to another story, Abhimanyu was actually the son of the moon who was cursed to live on earth as a mortal. The moon missed his son so much that he begged Krishna to find a way to kill his son in the sixteenth year of his life. The only way to do so was to prevent him from learning the secrets of the Chakra-vyuha. The third, more sinister reading, is that Krishna knew how much Arjuna loved his son. Only the death of his son at the hands of his teacher would goad Arjuna to take the war more personally and fight more intensely.

Abhimanyu was barely two years old when the Pandavas gambled away their kingdom and went on their thirteen year exile; he was fifteen when they returned. It took a year to prepare for the war against the Kauravas, who refused to return the Pandava kingdom. Thus he was sixteen when the battle started.

Abhimanyu spent his childhood in Dwaraka with his uncles Krishna and Balaram. He fell in love with Balarama’s daughter, Vatsala, also known in some versions as Sasirekha. But Balarama wanted his daughter to marry a man with property, not a gambler’s son. So he invited Duryodhan’s son, Laxman, to accept his daughter’s hand in marriage. A heartbroken Abhimanyu appealed to Krishna who said he could not interfere, but advised the young boy to take the help of his wild cousin, Bhima’s son by the Rakshasi Hidimbi, Ghatotkacha. Ghatotkacha carried both Abhimanyu and Vatsala out of Dwaraka and got them secretly married in the forest. Ghatotkacha then used magic to take the form of Vatsala. He presented himself in the wedding ceremony. When Balarama did the ‘kanya-daan’, Ghatotkacha squeezed Laxman’s hand so hard that he fainted. When Duryodhana realized that Vatsala was actually Ghatotkacha, he was furious. Just as Subhadra had married Arjuna instead of him, Vatsala had married Arjuna’s son instead of his. Duped a second time, the event further fuelled Duryodhana’s hatred for the Pandavas.

When the Pandavas emerged from exile, Arjuna came with a gift for his son – a second wife, the princess Uttari of Matsya, daughter of Virata. The king wanted the princess to marry Arjuna but Arjuna felt she was more fit to be his daughter-in-law. Thus by the time the war at Kurukshetra was announced, Abhimanyu was a much married man with two wives. When he entered the battlefield, his second wife, Uttari, was already pregnant with Parikshit, the only descendent of the Pandavas who would survive the war.

On the 13th day of the war, Drona attacked the Pandava army with the dreaded Chakra-vyuha formation. The only warrior who could shatter this formation was Arjuna but Krishna had taken Arjuna to the far side of the battlefield to destroy the dreaded chariot-warriors, the Samsaptakas. The whirlpool soon surrounded the Pandavas. Yudhishtira was desperate. “Can no one break this formation?” he asked. Abhimanyu then revealed that he knew how to break into the formation, an act that would allow the Pandava army to escape. “But someone has to come back to save me as I do not know how to break out,” he said. Yudhishtira promised to come to come to Abhimanyu’s rescue once the army had escaped. Unfortunately,he was unable to do so; his path was blocked by Duryodhana’s brother-in-law, Jayadhrath.

Trapped in the Chakra-vyuha, young Abhimanyu, fought like a lion. He killed Duryodhana’s son, Laxman. But then, against all rules of war, he was attacked simultaneously by a number of Kaurava warriors. Karna broke his bow and chariot.  The other warriors surrounded him as hyenas attack an injured lion. The Pandavas trapped outside could only hear his cries as he was hacked to death. The last blow was struck by Dusshasana’s son. But before dying, Abhimanyu managed to kill him too.

“Beware of half-knowledge,” is a line often used by gurus. And Abhimanyu serves as a classical example for this.

  • Phani Shankar

    The details of Abhimanyu marrying Sasirekha reminds me a of a good olden Telugu movie “Maya Bazaar” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0249795/). Wonderful post.

  • Typo in Para 2, Line 5 “Simply by hearing his father and speak speak,” Otherwise wonderful as always.

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt g.,

    I have a question to ask u. What about Sasirekha and Abimanuyu’s married life didn’t they had any children…please clarify

    • Have not found any story on that yet

      • Ampat Varghese

        Watch the Telugu movie Maya Bazaar.

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt g.,

    Did Duryodhan had a Daughter or Son because some say that he had a daughter name Laksmana in your post it is son named laxmana.
    It was Krishna’s son named Samaba had abducted her on her swayamvara…So confusing

    one thing in common Krishna & Duryohan were in laws… The common truth in both concepts

  • Siva Prasad

    Thanks man..i always have an interest of reading epics even though i read it many times..please do write about epics and the lesson to be learnt from it..thanks a million:-)

  • According to what I remember, Abhimanyu did not kill Dusshasan’s son (Meghnad, if I recall correctly). During a one-on-one fight they were both knocked unconscious, but Meghnad recovered first. He did not wait for Abhimanyu to regain consciousness (which was the rule of individual combat), and crushed his head with a mace.

  • Girija Sankar Panda

    Dear Devdutt,

    About a year agoI discovered you through an article published in The Economic Times (under Management Mytho). It was so delightful that I took the labour, on several weekends, of searching all the past editions of ET downloaded all the articles written by you. Ever since I never stop wondering whenever I read a writing of yours. Please keep writing so that ours and the following generations will renovate their interest in Mythology.

    Girija Sankar Panda

  • Vineet Gupta

    Very nice read. Just stumbled upon your website, after watching your presentation on TED. Keep up with the good work.

  • very nicely written! :-)

  • I never knew that Krishna actually prevented Abhimanyu from knowing how to break the chakravu.

    There are so many aspects of the stories that are still unknown. Glad to pay a visit here.

  • Abhimanyu did what he had to.. his half knowledge helped. If he wouldnt have at least broken into the chakravyu that wouldnt be better… I assume. So better than no knowledge is half knowledge?

    • sandeep

      yes i completely agree……one shuld try and learn as much as possible and in the process if some thing remains half learned, dosent matter…if we try and promote the philosoply that half knowledge is bad….people wud not take up acquiring knowledge

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt g.,

    Thank you very much for answering my questions

  • Murali Apparaju

    Dear Dev,

    Nice – but I guess there’s more to this than meets the eye… u seemed to stop short of saying that?

    One line of thought which I remember is that Krishna didn’t want Abhimanyu to overshadow Arjuna?, who by far was the best among the peers – weird concept considering Abhimanyu is Krishna’s nephew…. weirder still considering Krishna himself had to deal with a cruel uncle…. and could’ve been different with his nephew…

    what’s with this uncle-nephew politics in Mahabharata?


  • hema

    the battleground was not so vast.its shocking Arjuna couldnt come to his son rescue.

  • The point of sufficiently provocating Arjuna is interesting. Abhimanyu was strong enough never to be defeated in duels. This meant that more than one person had to attack simultaneously to defect him! And it is here that Karna has a role to play.

    It is regarded that this offence of Karna is what provokes Arjuna sufficiently to kill him despite being unarmed and preoccupied. It is the memory of his son’s death that incites Arjuna to kill Karna; which was important for not only Arjuna to survive, but also for the battle to be won. The other offences of Karna weren’t really offences, but circumstantial actions. At least so it is said…

  • Renuka Mani

    Awesome. i was waiting to add this to my file. thanx, a real eye opener on the choices we make in our lives and how we have to live with it.

  • anand moda

    Enlightening and Uplifting. Do continue the great work going.

  • Snigdha Pani

    Dear Devdut,
    I like this interpretation of Abhimanyu’s death by treachery. Actually had it not been for his untimely and unjustified death Arjun would not have fought the battle. If we were to look at our lives we would find that most of us need to be goaded to do our work. We are not courageous enough to take a decision and act accordingly.


  • NVRamanan

    Excellent..now a book on Abhimanyu, hopefully? Surefire best seller and the scope is fantastic..can go backward into the Mahabharata and forward into Janmejaya and Parikshit!


    HEY!!!VEDANG!!!How can u remember were u even alive then???!!!

  • Jyoti

    This story of a featus hearing the humans noice, has just been confirmed by science. Music and other sounds can make a diffence in the unborn child. Amazing the indian epics stories knew this millineums before….. humbled

  • Rajiv

    Absolutely right! Though you’ve not mentioned any examples I got into Abhimanyu syndrome in my last order. Accepted for usage of spl material with verbal offer from vendor without getting into the details of the same. Basically did not think of plan 2 when something goes wrong which I normally do. Got the order and vendor goes back on delivery and other sources are 3 times more expensive. Discussed with client for a month and ended up losing the order and the client as well. Lesson learnt!

  • kaustubh


    children can learn even when they are in their mother’s womb…..This is called ‘Garbh Sankar’

    Manashakti kendra in lonvala has been working and doing research on this topic for the last 50 years…and have been sucesfully conducting courses for thousands of couples…..

    for more information long on to http://www.manashakti.org/

    • Kstrategy

      Wasn’t most of killing in Kurukshethra against rules set initially ?

      1. Bhima – killed by placing a shikhandi to oppose him.
      2. Drona – by telling a lie that aswathama was killed
      3. Abhimanyu alone against an army –
      and Jayadratha (as revenge) was killed after Krishna decieved it to be dark and catching off guard.
      4. Karna – unarmed and not fighting
      5. Duryodhana -by hitting on thighs in a mace battle with Bhima.
      6. Then Aswathama killed most of the Pandavas including Drishtadyunman and Panchali’s sons in dead of night.

      Looks like all is fair in war.

      • Devdutt

        If that is what you see, you have lost the point of the Mahabharata.

        • Ampat Varghese

          There is no single point unless you are a religious interpreter of the Mahabharata. The great point is that there are and can be multiple points of view and interpretation instead of singular positions.

          • Devdutt

            Thats a clever way of saying there is no point at all.

  • rajesh

    In any discussion on Mahabharata we always discuss about Chakravyu.
    We all know its arrangement of soldiers to trap opponent’s army but does Mahabharata explains it elaborately. Or just word Chakravyu is used?
    Did Mahabharata explain briefly about the soldiers positions and tactics used in chakravyu?
    Why BHISMA (first commander of Kauravas) or Pandavas never use Chakravyu?
    Or the technique was known to DRONACHARYA only?

    • Gaurav

      only Drona knew this technique and the way to make a chakravyuha…n arjuna was the one who was taught about it that how to break out the chakravyuha…..

  • When I wanted a reference to Vatsala Kalyanam, which is a favourite topic among dancers and harikatha exponents here, I googled and found you. I just wanted to give the correct version to my little granddaughter. I am so pleased. The film Maya Bazaar in Tamil and Telugu (1957) was about Vatsala Kalyanam, but no written Mahabharatha has this story. So I was happy to see this verification. Any idea what Sri Balarama’s wife was called?

    • Devdutt

      Balarama’s wife is called Revati….do see the story in my new book Jaya: an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata

      • Thanks. I am planning to get the book. I just read why Mahabharatham was called Jaya.

  • Swati

    Abhimanyu’s story is tragic indeed. He was brave and courageous. Even though he did not know how to break out of Chakravyuha, he entered it so that war could take a course.
    But Dr Pattnaik writes that it was Krsna who interrupted Arjun while he explained Subhadra how to break formation; what I have heard and read till now is that while Arjuna explained Subhadra the skill of entering the Chakrvyuha, Subhadra fell asleep before she could hear the breaking of the formation. And thus Abhimanyu did not know how to break out of Chakravyuha.

  • uttara

    the lady who married abhimanyu is not uttari, she was uttara.. pls correct it..

  • uttara

    u havent correctd it..