The story of Abhimanyu

Today, let us understand the character of Abhimanyu from the Mahabharata. Abhimanyu was the son of Arjuna and Subhadra, Krishna’s sister. He learnt the art of warfare while still in his mother’s womb. Arjuna was explaining to Subhadra the techniques of breaking and destroying different battlefield formations such as the makarvyuha (crocodile formation), the kurmavyuha (tortoise formation), the sarpavyuha (snake formation) and finally, the chakravyuha (wheel formation).

While he was explaining the chakravyuha, Subhadra fell asleep. Arjuna could only explain to her how to enter the formation and break it but could not explain to her how to escape from it as she had fallen asleep. When Abhimanyu was young, Arjuna had to go for vanvaas and so he was brought up in Dwarka by his maternal uncle, Sri Krishna. Sri Krishna had put him in the hands of his son, Pradyuman, who taught him all the techniques of warfare.

In the beginning of the Mahabharata war, the first challenge was thrown by Abhimanyu when he attacked Bhishma’s chariot. On the tenth day, Bhishma fell and Dronacharya took over as commander of the Kaurava forces. On the thirteenth day, Dronacharya arranged his forces in the chakravyuha formation. The night before, Duryodhana and Dronacharya had planned to take Yudhisthira as prisoner. Dronacharya told Duryodhana that if he could manage to get Arjuna away from the battlefield, then he would capture Yudhisthira. This work of taking Arjuna away was given to the two Trigartha brothers, who taunted Arjuna’s weakness – his Gandiva (bow) and Arjuna in reaction went behind them, away from the battlefield. Seeing the chakravyuha formation, Yudhisthira was at a loss of what to do as only Arjuna knew how to break the chakravyuha formation. At this time, Abhimanyu said that he knew how to break the formation but did not know how to come out of it.

Yudhisthira assured Abhimanyu that all the Pandava warriors would be closely behind him as soon as he broke the formation. Abhimanyu broke the formation and entered the chakravyuha but none of the other warriors could follow him as Jayadratha re-closed the formation right behind Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu was then alone in the chakravyuha where he fought a mighty battle, killing one-fourth of the warriors of the Kaurava army. When he killed Duryodhana’s son, Laxman, Duryodhana ordered all his warriors to attack Abhimanyu together. Karna attacked him from behind and broke his bow-string, and then all the other warriors attacked him together and killed him.

Let us try to derive meaning from this symbology. Abhimanyu comes from ‘abhi’ meaning not frightened or bold and ‘manyuman’ meaning valorous. My teacher always said that the real yogic sadhanas are done when we go to sleep at night. The body is sleeping but we move into deeper levels of the dream world and gain both experience and knowledge. To enter deep inner spaces protected by layers of darkness and leaving the physical body (which is a kind of death), one needs fearlessness and valour. In the dream world, three minutes of dreamtime is equal to a whole lifetime. Abhimanyu learnt the deeper secrets of warfare in his mother’s womb and hence was able to learn knowledge of lifetimes just in a few months. All students who walk on the path of Yoga must learn how to consciously move into deeper levels of sleep to gain knowledge the way Abhimanyu did.

Another meaning of Abhimanyu comes from ‘abhi’ meaning pride and ‘manyu’ meaning towards pride and vanity (abhiman). When we start our sadhana, we have to create a new ego within us, the one that wants to practice the discipline of sadhana. This new ego decides everything for us – when we wake up, what practices we do, how we do them and how sincere we are in our efforts. Initially, this ego is very useful but as we progress on the path, it starts accumulating pride. As we go deeper into our psychic nature and see our own faults and how we all hypnotised to the sleep of life, this very ability gives us power to also see other people’s faults very easily. Out of this, a new pride (abhiman) is born – that we are progressing whereas other people are still victims of their faults. It is as this time that if this ego does not die, any further progress on the path will not be possible. This ego was initially needed to kill one-fourth of the Kaurava warriors, i.e. the obstacles in our psychic nature that hamper our progress on the spiritual path. But once this is done, this ego needs to die.

Once the devas (or the conscious forces) decided that there was too much negativity in the world and resolved that one of them take birth on earth to counter this negativity. Chandra agreed to send his son, Varchas, only on the condition that he would return when he was sixteen years old. Chandra said “Let Varchas be born as the son or Arjuna and when he is sixteen, he will enter the chakravyuha, be killed and returned to me”. Hence, Varchas manifested on Earth in the form of Abhimanyu.

The ego, with its pride and vanity are born out of the imagination of the mind. Chandra means the mind. When the student practices taking his attention beyond the mind, imagination is the biggest barrier from which he has to free himself and this is represented by Abhimanyu, the manifest son of Chandra.

We must note that Abhimanyu could only be killed because Arjuna was led astray. We had previously seen that Arjuna is the emotional centre and they were able to lead him astray by taunting his bow. The bow represents our diaphragm and whenever anyone offends us, it first affects our breathing and then our emotional centre. If our breathing is in rhythm, then there is no question of feeling offended or hurt. To kill imagination (Abhimanyu), the emotional energy must be occupied elsewhere and thus they could kill Abhimanyu when Arjuna was not present. As Sri Krishna and Arjuna were returning after killing the Trigartha brothers, Arjuna felt a deep emotion as if a great calamity had befallen. This was because he could sense that something wrong was happening despite him returning victorious. Our emotions have cognitive powers and can divine future events before they happen but this cannot happen till we are free of imagination.

Abhimanyu can go into the chakravyuha but cannot come out of it. If we understand this, we can realise that in life, pride gets us into many situations which we find it very difficult to escape from.