Abhimanyu is among the most luminous characters in the Mahabharata whose heroism is unsurpassed in an epic filled with great heroes and their superhuman deeds. The credentials of his blood are great. His father is Arjuna, and Arjuna’s father is Indra himself, which makes Abhimanyu the grandson of the lord of the celestials. Abhimanyu is also a scion of the Lunar dynasty and heir to the legends of such men as Puroorava, Nahusha, Yayati, Bharata, Ajameedha, Kuru and so on. His mother is Subhadra, a Yadava princess, on whose side too his ancestry could be traced to Yadu, the founder prince of the Yadava line, and through him to the same legendary Puroorava, Nahusha and Yayati. And, beyond all this, he is the nephew of Krishna himself.
When the Mahabharata war takes place, he is a sixteen-year-old adolescent just married to the beautiful Uttara. In spite of his tender age, though, he is a brilliant warrior, fearless in the battlefield, his valor no less than that of the greatest of warriors. Speaking of him, Sanjaya tells Dhritarashtra that Abhimanyu has in him all the great virtues and skills of all the Pandavas and Krishna put together.
It is on the thirteenth day of the war that we see his valour and skill at their most dazzling. The day begins by a deeply hurt Duryodhana accusing his teacher and the commander-in-chief of his army Drona of being partial to the Pandavas. He tells his acharya that he is treating them, the Kauravas, as his enemies, and asking him why else he did not capture Yudhishthira even when he had an opportunity to do so. If he sincerely wanted to capture Yudhishthira when the eldest Pandava was in front of him, Duryodhana tells Drona, not all the gods and all the Pandavas together could have stopped him. No, it is them, the Kauravas, that the acharya considered his enemies to be slaughtered. Drona, hurt, responds by promising that he would kill on that day one mighty Pandava hero – provided Duryodhana succeeded in keeping Arjuna away.
The plan is put into action. Arjuna is challenged by the Samshaptakas on the southern side of the battlefield. Drona arrays his army into a chakravyuha on another side, a formation almost impossible to break into. A huge number of mighty heroes on the Pandava side all together attack Drona in his chakravyuha, but they are not able to make a dent in the formation and from the front of the formation Drona starts slaughtering the Pandava army like a tempestuous fire consuming a forest. Finding no other solution, Yudhishthira approaches Abhimanyu and tells him that it is now on him to break into Drona’s chakravyuha and save the Pandava army. “Son Abhimanyu,” adds Yudhishthira, “the entire army of your fathers and uncles is begging you for this and you must do it. There is none other than you present here who can do that.”
Abhimanyu instantly agrees to do so. There is nothing he desires more than glory in battle. However, he tells Yudhishthira, “Father has taught me to enter the chakravyuha. But in case of a danger, I cannot come out of it.” He has learnt to break into the vyuha, but not to come out of it.
Yudhishthira tells him that he sees Abhimanyu as no less in battle than Arjuna himself. And the Pandavas will have their eye constantly on him; they would follow him into the chakravyuha through the break he makes. Abhimanyu now accepts the challenge, saying he, in a fury, shall “enter the vyuha exactly as a moth flings itself into burning fire”.
When Abhimanyu commands his charioteer to lead his chariot towards Drona, the man is not happy to do so and raises objections. He requests the sixteen-year-old to take time to think about it before he begins the battle. He points out that Abhimanyu has grown up amidst great love and comforts and he is not a master of the battle arts as Drona is. Young Abhimanyu’s answer is disturbing to the reader of the epic and it speaks loudly of his underestimation of the mighty warriors on the Kaurava side and of his overestimation of himself, of his megalomania. Laughing aloud, he tells his charioteer: “What is this Drona or even the entire world of kshatriyas to me? I can fight Indra himself, mounted on his Airavata, along with all the gods! Why, I can fight in a battle even Lord Rudra himself, to whom the entire world of beings pays homage! This battle that I am going wage today does not bewilder me in the least.”
Abhimanyu’s shocking words do not stop with these either. Continuing in the same vein he says: “This entire army of enemies is not equal to one sixteenth of my power. Why, even if I find in front of me in the battlefield my father Arjuna or my uncle himself, the mighty Vishnu who has conquered the whole universe, that wouldn’t frighten me.”
With no great joy in his mind, the poor charioteer takes his master forward.
Abhimanyu breaks into the chakravyuha. In the mighty battle that follows with relentless ferocity for hours on end, he slaughters ordinary enemy warriors and mighty heroes alike, even as a whirlwind pulls up by their roots tiny bushes as well as mighty trees on its path. Among those killed are Duryodhana’s son Lakshmana, Karna’s younger brother, Ashmaka’s son, Shalya’s younger brother, Shalya’s son Rukmaratha, Drighalochana, Kundavedhi, Sushena, Vasatiya, Kratha and numerous other great warriors. He wounds Karna and makes him flee, makes Dushshasana faint in the battlefield so that he has to be carried off by others.
Empowered by a boon he had received from Shiva, the Kaurava brother-in-law Jayadratha has been in the meantime keeping the rest of the Pandava army outside the chakravyuha. All the concerted efforts of Yudhishthira, Bheema, Nakula, Sahadeva, Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Drupada, Virata, Satyaki and several other warriors were not able to enter the vyuha through the gap Abhimnyu had made in it.
Inside the chakravyuha, though, almost the entire army of the Kauravas is routed by the adolescent Abhimanyu and such is the terror unleashed by him that at one stage eight mighty warriors all together pounce upon him: Drona, Ashwatthama, Brihadbala, Kripa, Duryodhana, Karna, Kritavarma and Shakuni. They are joined by others. All of them together, though, prove no match to Abhimanyu, making us wonder if his arrogant words to his charioteer as he ordered him to drive his chariot toward Drona were after all true. Brihatbala is killed, along with Ashwaketu, Bhoja, Vrindaraka and numerous others.
The Kauravas now take counsel among themselves. Drona tells them, with great pride in his words and a broad smile on his lips, that Abhimanyu cannot be vanquished in a direct battle even by all the gods and the Asuras together. Destroy his weapons, destroy his chariot, kill his protectors, and then they would be able to slay him. Accordingly, six maharathis together attack him now, against all rules of righteous battle, and attacking him simultaneously, Karna severs his bow, Kritavarma kills his horses, Kripa his protectors. As Abhimanyu, now without his chariot and bow, begins battling them with his sword and shield, Drona destroys the shield. Now it is with a shining wheel that Abhimanyu attacks the mighty warriors, resembling Krishna, his body now bathed in blood. All the warriors together destroy his wheel, and then Abhimanyu takes up a mace and attacks them. Eventually the peerless hero falls to a strike on the head from the mace of the son of Dushshasana.
By the values of the day, there is no way more glorious than this for a kshatriya to die. And Abhimanyu was only sixteen when he fought so fabulously and met with his end in the battlefield. He had gone into the battlefield in the early part of the day and had been able to fight against this mighty army and all those illustrious warriors all day long – when he falls in the end, the day comes to an end and with it, the day’s battle.
If Abhimanyu’s heroism in the Sanskrit epic amazes us beyond words, if he stands out in the epic in many ways as the most splendorous warrior in the battle, he retains his glorious nature in the popular psyche of the land too. All across the land he is accepted as an unsurpassed, adorable hero. Children are lovingly named after him all over the land in spite of the fact that he dies at the tender age of sixteen, something no father or mother wants to happen to their child. His name sends thrills through millions of young hearts at a mere mention of it even after the millennia that have passed since his story ended in the evening of the thirteenth day of that great battle in Kurukshetra. We cannot think of anything he did in his short life that is not glorious. Legends that have been made of him in the mainstream ‘Sanskritic’ tradition itself, including one that says that he learnt the secret of breaking into the chakravyuha when he was still in his mother’s womb.
In spite of all this, there seems to be an element of negativity attached to him. The Sanskrit epic itself calls him an incarnation of the varchas of the moon god. Varchas is clearly Soma’s son in the Amshavatara Parva of the Mahabharata though he could also be taken as the splendor of Soma, as Alf Hiltebeitel takes it to be in his The Cult of Draupadi, as when he says “In the Sanskrit epic, Abhimanyu is the incarnation of the splendor [varcas] of Soma.”]. The moon god, while glorious, is not an entirely positive character in ancient Sanskrit lore.
The Padmapurana tells us the story of the moon god’s birth. In the olden days, Brahma the Creator asked his son, the sage Atri, to perform creation. Atri began performing tapas, austerities, in order to gain the powers needed for creating beings. At the end of years of tapas, Atri realized the Supreme Reality, Brahman, in his heart. As he saw the Supreme Truth reflected in his heart, tears of ecstatic joy began to flow from the sage’s eyes. Those tears of rapture tempted the entire universe and the eight directions changed themselves into women and drank up those tears, desiring thereby to conceive children. The women became pregnant, but they were not able to bear their pregnancies born of Atri’s tears, such was the power of those tears. They pushed the fetuses out their wombs. Brahma then gathered the fetuses, joined them together, and made it into a handsome youth who bore all kinds of weapons in his hands. Brahma took the youth, Soma, the moon god, with him into his world, and seeing him there the Brahmarshis requested the Creator that he be made their master. The gods, the sages, the Gandharvas and the Apsaras praised him with the hymn of the Sama and as they did so, the luster of Soma gathered still greater glow.
Daksha gave Soma twenty-seven of his daughters in marriage. Subsequently, Soma meditated on Vishnu for ten thousand kalpas at the end of which Vishnu appeared before him and asked him to ask for any boon he desired. Soma told Vishnu that he wanted to perform a rajasuya sacrifice in heaven and when he did that all the gods beginning with Brahma should attend it being present physically in his home and that Shiva, the bearer of the trident, should stand at his gate guarding it.
His wish granted, Soma began the sacrifice, with all the gods participating in it and Shiva standing guard for it. At the end of the great sacrifice, the moon god gave away the three worlds as dakshina to the priests who performed the sacrifice for him. he took at the ritual avabhrta bath concluding the sacrifice and as he stood in all his glory after the bath, nine goddesses fell in love with him and were instantly filled with lust for him. Lakshmi the wife of Vishnu, Sinivali, the wife of the prajapati Kardama, Dyuti the wife of Vibhavasu, Pushti the wife of Dhata, Prabha the wife of the sun god, Kuku the wife of Havishman, Keerti the wife of Jayanta, Anshumali the wife of Kashyapa and Dhriti the wife of Nanda abandoned their own husbands and gave themselves to Soma. Soma pleasured them all, ignoring their husbands. And such was his glory that no god or sage could do nothing but watch it all silently.
The image invoked by the goddesses filled with lust throwing themselves at Soma and his pleasuring them all openly is not of a god but of a demon lover who incites women with frenzied carnal hunger and the wild orgies that follow.
Seeing the brilliance of Soma, Tara, the wife of Brihaspati, the guru of the gods, left her husband and went and began living with him as his wife. Brihaspati came again and again and begged Soma to give his wife back to him, but he refused, saying Tara had come to him on her own and she was welcome to stay with him as long as she wished, it is for her to decide to go back if and when she so wanted. Eventually this refusal of Soma to give Brihaspati his wife back led to the first war, known as the Tarakamaya war, between the gods, who took the side of their guru Brihaspati, and the Asuras, who took the side of Soma.
Soma, whose energy, varchas, later incarnates as Abhimanyu is already associated with here the Asuras, popularly, the demons. It is the affair between him and Tara that leads to the first ‘war of the worlds’, a universal catastrophe.
If the negative elements in the moon god are not clear enough from the lust he incites in women and his open lovemaking to the wives of the gods and sages in their presence, and from his adulterous affair with Tara and the war between the gods and the demons it causes, the Bhavishya Purana tells us that his birth itself is a result of a curse. According to the Bhavishya Purana, Soma is Brahma, the Creator, himself reborn as the son of Atri’s wife Anasuya, as a result of her curse when he sexually desired her, though he was his son’s wife, his desire thus being evil not only because it is sexual desire for another man’s wife, that too the wife of a sage, but also because it is incest since that sage is his own son.
The Harivamsha gives us this story with slight variations. In the Harivamsha version, after the sacrifice, the praise by the sages and the glory achieved go to the head the moon god and he turns evil and he abducts Tara by force – it is not that she goes to him on her own. This version also speaks of the evil in Soma’s lustrous son Budha too – born to Tara and Soma. After the birth of Budha, seeing his spectacular splendor, the gods suspect that he cannot be the son of Brihaspati but has to be the son of Soma. Tara, asked by the gods whether the child is of Soma or of Brihaspati, keeps quiet. And the new born Budha begins to curse his own mother! The Harivamsha also says that when Budha appears in the sky, evil things [pratikoolam] happen.
The Brahmanda Purana gives us yet another story about the birth of Soma, the moon god: Brahma was sitting lost in meditation, creation emerging from him, as lust sprouted in his heart. The Goddess Saraswati was born of this lust and seeing her, Brahma lusted for her. Brahma hated himself for lusting after his own daughter and cursed Kama, the lord of love, that he would be burnt in the fire of Shiva’s third eye. The lust in Brahma’s heart, however, did not die even after the curse and he deposited the lust in his son, the sage Atri and Atri gave it to his wife Anasuya. Unable to bear the fierce intensity of this lust, Anasuya handed it back to Atri. It is this lust that came out of Atri’s eyes as tears and it is from that the moon god was born. The moon god is thus, according to Brahmanda Purana, born of Brahma’s lust for his daughter Saraswati.
Great evil is combined with glory and virtue in the moon god in our ancient lore. Mythology all over the world speaks of the lust that the moon awakens in lovers, particularly in women. Modern psychology tells us of the full moon’s evil effects on the minds of men and women in lunatic asylums.
The beautiful, brilliant, glorious moon, while it has the power to invoke love in the human heart, has always been also associated with evil, madness, violence and depravity, this later aspect making demoniacal.
Abhimanyu as an incarnation of the splendor of the moon god shares with him his demoniacal nature in spite of all his glory in the Mahabharata. His glory in the battlefield, while splendid, is also demoniacal in a sense, because it is the glory of killing, albeit he is fighting on the right side of dharma. His arrogant, megalomaniacal words to his charioteer as the man hesitates to drive young Abhimanyu towards Drona have an element of the fiendish in them. As we saw earlier, this is what he says, laughing aloud in pride and contempt: “What is this Drona or even the entire world of kshatriyas to me? I can fight Indra himself, mounted on his Airavata, along with all the gods! Why, I can fight in a battle even Lord Rudra himself, to whom the entire world of beings pays homage! The battle that I have to wage today does not bewilder me in the least.” Later he states haughtily that the entire army of enemies is not equal to one sixteenth of his kala, his power, one sixteenth of one’s kala standing idiomatically for the smallest amount. He does not stop with that. Continuing, he says that even if he finds in front of him his father Arjuna or his uncle himself, that wouldn’t frighten him. He makes it clear it is not the human Krishna he is speaking of, but the mighty Vishnu who has conquered the entire universe. Abhimanyu’s words here definitely speak of a demon’s contempt for the gods, including the mightiest of them.
As a matter of fact, Abhimanyu’s name itself has an element of evil in it. Though the word manyu in Abhimanyu can also mean spirit, mettle, courage and so on, the more common and the first meaning of the word is anger, wrath, rage. The son of Subhadra and Arjuna, the nephew of Krishna, is named after anger and the anger is prefixed with abhi, the first meaning of which is ‘to go towards’, making Abhimanyu someone who moves towards anger. Abhi also means excessive, intense and so on, making Abhimanyu excessive anger, intense wrath.
The common etymological meaning of the name Abhimanyu is ‘the one with furious anger’ [abhivrddhah manyur yasya]. And anger is essentially evil, even when it is noble anger, which could be another meaning of the word Abhimanyu, since other meanings of the prefix abhi point towards spiritedness, courage and nobility.
As yet another meaning of the word manyu, grief, suggests, Abhimanyu is also a tragic figure in the Mahabharata. Along with his recklessness, there is a kind of doom associated with him. As he accepts the challenge of entering the chakravyuha from which he knows, and says, he cannot come out in an emergency, his words are both tragic and prophetic. He shall enter the vyuha, he says, “exactly as a moth flings itself into burning fire”. The moth never returns from the fire.
The demonic element in Abhimanyu is understood and highlighted in the Draupadi cult popular in northern Tamil Nadu and its neighboring areas in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Speaking of this, Alf Hiltebeitel in The Cult of Draupadi speaks of how in South Indian folklore Abhimanyu is an incarnate demon and Krishna, who knows this, schemes the death of his own sister’s son by seeing that he is left alone to protect Yudhishthira while Drona attacks him with the chakravyuha. According to one South Indian folk tradition, it is a curse from Durvasa that makes Abhimanyu a Rakshasa in his current birth. In a former life he was a gatekeeper at Rama’s palace and Durvasa curses him to be born as a Rakshasa in his future life because he refused entry to the sage into Rama???????s court. The reason for Krishna desiring Abhimanyu’s death is not exactly because he is a Rakshasa though, but because Abhimanyu is capable of killing the entire Kauravas all alone and that would make it impossible for the Pandava brothers who have taken vows of killing individual Kauravas.
According to yet another tale mentioned in the Glossary to Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Meghanadavadha Kavya, Abhimanyu’s birth again is a result of a curse, though a different curse. According to this tale, the moon failed to pay due deference to the sage Garga, and sage cursed him to be born as a human being on the earth and Abhimanyu is this accursed moon god. He dies at the young age of sixteen because the sage, moved by the moon’s begging for forgiveness, reduced the severity of the curse by saying that he would be killed in battle at the age of sixteen and could then go back to heaven.
However, the Bheel Mahabharata develops the demon nature of Abhimanyu fully. Here he is not even a son of Arjuna, but the demon Iko Danav who enters Subhadra’s womb and becomes her son. When Arjuna marries Subhadra, to please Krishna and not because he is in love with her, Subhadra is already pregnant and Iko Danav is in her womb as Abhimanyu. He has become the child of Subhadra with one specific purpose: destroying/killing Krishna for wiping out the entire race of Danavas.
One day Narada asks Krishna over how much of the world he has lordship and he tells Narada that he has the overlordship of three quarters of the world and the Danavas, demons, of the remaining one quarter. Narada wants to see the Danava land and wants Krishna to take them there but Krishna is very reluctant. However, after Narada has put a lot of pressure on him he eventually agrees to go there with him. In the Danava land – Andhariye Khand in Bheel meaning Uttara Khand in Hindi – they are caught by Bhainsa Danav – Mahishasura and his men. They are whipped brutally and then are sewed up in stinking hides and then thrown into a rubbish heap.
Krishna plans revenge and through a clever hoax lets Mahishasura know that he and Narada had in fact come to the Danava land to offer Yadava virgins to all the Danavas because there are too many of them and he wants to marry them off.
Krishna and Narada are now rescued from the rubbish heap, taken to Mahishasura’s palace, given bath and presented at the court. Krishna tells Mahishasura and his men that he would like to marry the Yadava virgins to the Danavas and every Danava, young and old, men and woman, should attend the marriages which are to take place the next full moon night – he wants every single Danava to come because it is a matter of prestige to him that such a huge barat, marriage party, has come and he, Krishna, has so many relatives now. The Danavas – married and unmarried – become delighted at this news and begins getting ready for the marriage.
The marriage, of course, is to take place in Dhooliyakot in Vaikunth, Krishna’s land. It is bitches and pussycats, as well as vixen and female jackals caught from the jungle that Krishna has arranged as brides for the Danavas. The marriage party is taken into a large enclosure decorated for the weddings and told to select any bride they liked. To their shock they realize who the brides are, but by then it is too late. The Danavas are trapped inside the enclosure. Mahishasura realizes that Krishna is having his vengeance.
Soon the skies darken and mountainous clouds gather above. A thunderous storm is unleashed in heavens, sending terror into the hearts of the Danavas. They seek shelter wherever they can find it in Dhooliyakot. The savagery of the skies grows and soon lightning begins to strike Dhooliyakot. Lightning strikes again and again, striking thirteen times in all. Krishna has his vengeance. The entire Danava race is reduced to ashes.
That is, all except the wife of Mahishasura who had gone to the jungle as the barat left and had not accompanied them. And she was pregnant at that time. The child is born and is named Iko – ‘the one and only’.
One day Iko Danav asks his mother why he is all alone, what happened to his father, uncles, brothers and other people of the community. His mother tells him there was a terrible famine and they are all dead of hunger and thirst. Iko does not believe it – why is it that only the Danavas are dead, he asks, why not other people? His mother warns him not to ask any more questions, it is dangerous to, he is her only hope, her very life and she does not want that to be blown out. Bhainsa Danav’s wife is however forced to reveal to her son the sad story of Krishna’s vengeance and the destruction of the Danavas, except for the two of them. In her hopelessness, she pronounces a curse on Krishna – Gandhari’s curse in the Mahabharata: May you and all your people be destroyed from the roots for annihilating the race of the Danavas.
Iko Danava takes a vow now, his face distorted in fury: You have killed my uncles and brothers, annihilated my race. Black Krishna, watch out for this man’s vengeance. If I do not do away with you, I am not the son of my father.”
Iko now plots to kill Krishna. He has a large chest [lit. pinjara, cage] made for him by a carpenter, a chest large enough to accommodate a man. The chest is strong and neither water nor air can enter it – it is so tightly made. Carrying the chest on his head, Iko starts walking towards Vaikunthapuri, where Krishna lives.
Krishna in Vaikunthapuri comes to know of Iko Danav’s plot to lock him up in his chest. He decides to go out and meet Iko on the way and starts out in the guise of an old Brahmin.
Iko and the old Brahmin meet on the way. Iko tells the Brahmin that the box is for Krishna and Krishna would sit in the box and play, would sleep in the box. The Brahmin questions it – how could he, because Krishna is quite fat. Iko assures him it is the right size for Krishna but the Brahmin is sure it should have a little bigger. Then he tells him: Avtar [Krishna] is the same size as Iko – if Iko would fit in inside the chest, Krishna is sure to fit in too. He suggests that Iko try if the chest is large enough for him. Iko gets inside the chest, the Brahmin instantly closes the door of the chest and locks it.
Krishna now takes the box with Iko to Vaikunthapuri and locks it up in the seventh basement cellar in his palace. He tells his sister Subhadra [Hodra] never to open the seventh basement cellar, not to allow anyone else to open it either. Opening it would be a tragedy. Don’t even go near that.
Then and there Subhadra decides she would open the cellar and see what is inside at the first chance she had – the first chance Krishna went out.
She soon has an opportunity.
Days pass. Weeks and months pass. And then one day Krishna is away and Subhadra finds the opportunity she has been waiting for. She must know what it is that her brother has kept hidden in the basement cellar. She goes to the cellar, opens the door, goes inside, opens the chest. Iko Danav, captive inside the chest, hungry and thirsty, emaciated, has by now turned into a bumblebee. In feverish fury he has been waiting for a chance to get out from the suffocating chest. As Subhadra opens the chest, the bumblebee flutters its wings and flies out. Subhadra opens her mouth in wonder and the bee enters it. Quickly the bee reaches her belly. Flames of fire leap up in her belly, causing intolerable pain. She runs out of the cellar and begins vomiting. She does not understand what has happened. Restlessly she tosses about in her bed, her body contorting in agony.
Krishna comes back in the evening. He questions Subhadra and discovers what has happened. He realizes he enemy is now in his own home. In his sister’s womb. Now he has no option but to do what he hates to do – abort the fetus. [SC: This is the opposite of what he does in the case of Uttara – dead Pareekshit is revived in her womb? In MB, the reviving takes place after the birth of Pareekshit?].
Krishna takes Subhadra to an empty cellar in the palace. She rests on a soft bed there, her body contorting in violent pain. Krishna knows if he chants the Chakra Veda [sakra ved – mantras dealing with the chakravyuha], the fetus will melt inside Subhadra’s womb. He tells her she would get relief from pain if she listened to the Chakra Veda. He begins chanting the Veda and Subhadra ‘hmms’ along, letting him know she is listening.
Krishna chants the Chakra Veda mantras revealing the secret of breaking into the first six ‘forts’ of the chakravyuha. As she listens to the Chakra Veda, Subhadra finds release from pain. By the time Krishna has finished chanting about the sixth fort, Subhadra is fast asleep.
Inside her womb, Iko Danav thinks: I have by now understood the secret of breaking into the first six forts. Uncle thinks his nephew is melting inside the womb, whereas the nephew is mastering the secret of the forts. Now is the time for the seventh fort and mother has fallen asleep. All right, let me ‘hmm’ in her place.
Krishna continues chanting the Chakra Veda – now the chants are about the seventh fort. Iko ‘hmms’ from inside Subhadra’s womb. Krishna becomes suddenly alert: the sound is different. With a shock he realizes Subhadra is asleep and his plan has failed – now there is just the cow-dung fort left and if he had completed the chanting, Iko would have mastered the secret of all the seven forts, which would have resulted in Iko’s snatching away the overlordship of Vaikuntha from Krishna. He stops the chanting, thus making Iko Danav/Abhimanyu a master of only part of the knowledge of the chakravyuha and not all of it.
A Telugu folk variation of the story of the birth of Abhimanyu and how he learns to enter the chakravyuha is very close to the Bheel version. According to this, Krishna captures a Rakshasa and imprisons him as smoke in a pot. Just as the chest of Iko Danav is brought by Krishna to his palace, Krishna brings this pot too into his palace and keeps it in a remote corner. Subhadra, then already pregnant, unlike in the Bheel version, opens the pot out of curiosity and the Rakshasa, now freed, enters Subhadra’s womb and possesses the fetus growing there.
One night Arjuna describes to the pregnant Subhadra how to enter the Padmavyuha [sic] and listening to it, Subhadra falls asleep midway. The Rakshasa possessing the fetus in her womb, though, continues to listen and learns how to enter the Padmavyuha. However, at this stage Krishna learns what is happening and calls Arjuna to him, away from the sleeping Subhadra. Thus the Rakshasa in Abhimanyu learns only to enter the Padmavyuha and not to come out of it.
It is Krishna’s knowledge of Abhimanyu’s possession by a Rakshasa while he was still in the womb and has therefore demonic qualities in him that prompts Krishna to decide to put an end to Abhimanyu’s life later during the war in Bheel Bharath.
Coming back to the Bheel Bharath, the child in Subhadra’s womb keeps growing steadily and Krishna now realizes that he has to desperately get her married to a fit groom. He first approaches the Kauravas who sense something fishy in the offer and reject it. Krishna then goes to the Pandavas who accept his offer of marriage though they too sense something wrong but then Subhadra is all said and done the sister of the ‘Avtar’ himself. Krishna brings her one evening and leaves her at Hastinapura. Abhimanyu is born there and soon grows into an amazingly mighty warrior who knows no fear. So fearless is he that when Indrani walks out on Indra in fury and seeks shelter, he accepts her as his woman and keeps her in his palace – after she has offered herself first to the Kauravas and then to the Pandava brothers as their wife, both of whom reject her out of fear for Indra.
When the Bharath, or Rana Bharath [the Bharata war] begins, Abhimanyu is still an adolescent. He is married to Uttara [Entara], though the marriage has not yet been consummated since the ‘gauna’ ritual which brings the bride to the groom’s place has not yet taken place. The war takes place because there is a dispute about the division of property that had taken place under the arbitration of Krishna and the Kauravas feel they have been short-changed [and they have been].
When the Kauravas challenge the Pandavas for a war, they are not very keen to accept it. Arjuna is with them – he has gone to Patala, the abode of the Nagas under the earth, to get ‘real rhinoceros hide’ which is needed for making shields for the war and has not yet come back. The other Pandavas do not feel they are adequate to meet the challenge of the Kauravas – they are only five and the Kauravas are seventy-eight [In the Bheel Mahabharata, the Kauravas are seventy-eight in number, not a hundred.]. As they sit in their court deeply depressed, Abhimanyu comes there, reads the letter Duryodhana has sent challenging the Pandavas to the war. Reading the letter, he gets into a savage fury, angry tears of blood begin flowing from his eyes. He says the Pandavas are still five [including him], they are heroes, true the Kauravas are seventy-eight but who bothers about dogs and cats, they should accept the challenge, they should not run away from it like cowards, he is with them, and they shouldn’t worry in the least.
Bheema points out that Arjuna is not with them now and only he knows how to break into the seven forts and without him they wouldn’t be able to win the war. Young Abhimanyu’s reply is that a lion’s cub is a lion too and as for breaking into the seven forts, he knows how to break into the first six, having learnt it from Krishna while he was in his mother’s womb. If Bheema could help him with the seventh fort, then they could watch his valor in the warfield. He would turn the earth upside down. Bheema tells him he shouldn’t worry about the seventh fort, the seventh fort made of cow-dung and he knows how to break into it.
[At this stage, Abhimanyu appears a full Pandava, completely identifying with them, their cause his cause, with no Danava elements in him, with no mention of his old hunger for vengeance against Krishna.]
After a desperate attempt by Subhadra to turn her son back from war which she intuitively senses would be the end of him, the war begins in Kurukshetra [Kuriya Khet] with the battle-hungry Abhimanyu as the Pandava commander-in-chief. As he leaves for the war, Uttara approaches from behind, having come all the way from Virat in a single night, and in one of the most moving scenes in all Bheel Bharath, she begs him to take one look at her. Abhimanyu knows a warrior should not do that. With tears of blood streaming from his eyes, he walks on without looking back.
The Bheel Bharath now comes to the war proper. The tribal epic describes in about three hundred words what occupies the length of five of the eighteen-parva Sanskrit epic.
A fierce battle now ensues in Kurukshetra, the Pandavas under Abhimanyu’s leadership. Apart from Abhimanyu and the four Pandava brothers, Krishna too fights on the Pandava side, and on the other side are the seventy-eight Kauravas. Arrows fly across the battlefield like raindrops from the skies. Swords glint like streaks of lightning in a sandstorm. The Kauravas have made seven forts. Abhimanyu, glowing like fire, destroys one fort each day. The Kauravas are chopped like vegetables.
The seventh day of the war comes. Abhimanyu has destroyed the first six forts and it is now for Bheema to demolish the seventh fort. Bheema moves steadily forward, now fighting with his sword, now with his mace. Breathing like a bellow, flaming like fire, Bheema displays his valour in the battlefield and watching him with admiring eyes Abhimanyu stands in a corner of the field, his chin resting on the point of his bow, breathing quietly. Krishna who has been battling with them has been looking for an opportunity to slay Iko Danav. Now he sees his chance. Changing himself into a mouse, he comes and snaps the bowstring. The next instant the head of Abhimanyu standing lost in watching the battle is snapped off and flung far away.
God [Krishna] has committed an evil deed. On one side, Abhimanyu attains the world of the heroes who die in battle, on the other side, the seventy-eight Kauravas are dead.
In its final lines describing the war, the Bheel Bharath says God, meaning Krishna, has committed an evil deed.
In the Sanskrit epic Krishna does something that shocks us for its heartlessness. At the death of Ghatotkacha, the Rakshasa son of Bheema, while the entire Pandava army grieves, their eyes streaming with tears, Krishna is delighted. Such is his joy he begins to roar like a lion, so uncharacteristically of him. Roaring repeatedly in rapture, he hugs Arjuna. Still unable to contain his ecstasy, he stands up in the chariot, and starts to swing and dance, ‘like a tree caught by the winds’. Then he again hugs Arjuna, pats his back repeatedly, and continues to roar triumphantly, transported by joy. Arjuna is thoroughly confused; Krishna’s behavior completely mystifies him. He asks Krishna why he behaves so when the entire Pandava army is in deep gloom over Ghatotkacha’s death. He has never seen Krishna like this before, he confesses, telling him Krishna behaving so ecstatically is “as rare a thing as the ocean drying up, like Mount Meru moving away from its place” [both of which are great calamities].
Arjuna is totally baffled, as we can see.
His happiness is for two reasons, Krishna explains. One, that the Shakti, the mighty, infallible weapon Karna had received from Indra in return for his kavacha and kundala which could be used only once and against a single enemy, has now been used against Ghatotkacha and cannot now be used against Arjuna. And the other, Ghatotkacha has been killed. Had he not been killed in battle, explains Krishna, he would have had to kill him himself. [Yadi hyenam nahanishat karnah shaktya mahamrdhe, maya vadhyo’bhavishat sa bhaimasenir ghatotkachah: If Karna had not killed Bheemasena’s son Ghatotkacha with the Shakti in this great battle, then I would have had to kill him by myself later. Drona 181.25] What Krishna says is that Ghatotkacha had to be killed because he is a Rakshasa, and that it does not matter that he is Bheema’s son and is fighting on the Pandava side.
Krishna explains why he would have been bound to kill Ghatotkacha if he had not been killed in the war. Just like Shishupala and Ekalavya, both of whom he had personally killed, and like Jarasandha, whom he had killed through Bheema. Ghatotkacha too stood for ways of living based on adharma. “I did not kill him earlier,” says Krishna, “out of love for you [that is, the Pandavas]. He, this Rakshasa, hated brahmins and sacrifices. He was a sinner and a destroyer of Dharma.” [Drona 181.26.27]
Krishna adds that he is bound to destroy all beings that are against Dharma – ye hi dharmasya loptaro vadhyaste mama pandava: whoever harms Dharma, I have to kill them, O Pandava. “I have taken this unbreakable oath,” he adds, ‘for establishing dharma. Where there is respect for the Vedas, truth, self-control, cleanliness, righteousness, shame, prosperity, steadfastness, forbearance, that is where I abide.” [Drona 181.29] Of course, Krishna has yet another reason for killing Shishupala, Ekalavya and Jarasandha: they were so powerful, had they joined Duryodhana in the war, nothing on the earth or in heavens could have defeated him.
While the Mahabharata’s Krishna thus intentionally, with a deliberate plan, eliminates Ghatotkacha by exposing him to Karna’s Shakti for being a Rakshasa and living the Rakshasa ways of life, for being a hater of dharmic/brahmanic ways of living, he has nothing against Abhimanyu in the Sanskrit epic. He does not see any demoniac elements in Abhimanyu – for Krishna, he is his nephew, the son of his sister Subhadra and his cousin and best friend, Arjuna. In fact such is Krishna’s love for Abhimanyu, in one place in the epic Dushshasana says that Krishna would end his life if he heard that Abhimanyu has been killed.
However, that is not how the folk traditions see Abhimanyu, as we have just seen. The reasons Krishna gives in the Sanskrit epic for having Ghatotkacha killed, these folk versions of the epic extend to Abhimanyu [and also to Ulupi’s son Iravan, to Barbareek and to several others.] Thus to the Bheel Bharath, Abhimanyu is a full Danava, demon, whom Krishna personally kills.
Incidentally, the Bheel Bharath also moves away in several other significant ways from the Sanskrit epic in narrating the story of Abhimanyu.
For instance, the Sanskrit epic does not say that Abhimanyu learnt how to enter the chakravyuha from Krishna. The epic tells us, in the words of Abhimanyu, that he learnt breaking into the chakravyuha from his father Arjuna. When Yudhishthira asks him to break into the chakravyuha, Abhimanyu tells him: “Father has taught me the secret of breaking into the vyuha, but I’ll not be able to come out of it in case of a crisis.” [Upadishto hi me pitra yogo’neekavishatane; notsahe hi vinirgantum aham kasyamchidapadi. Drona 35.19] Later Arjuna, when he suspects that Abhimanyu has been sent in to break into the chakravyuha and has died there, says: “But I had not yet told him the way of getting out of the vyuha.” [Na chopadishtas tasyaseen mayaneekad vinirgamah. Drona 72.21]
However, in the Bheel Bharata, as we have seen, it is from Krishna that Abhimanyu learns how to enter the chakravyuha – which in the Bheel Bharath is really seven forts, one inside the other, rather than a military formation. Being forts, they are there right from the beginning of the war, and are not formed as the military formation of the Sanskrit epic on the thirteenth day of the war.
Folk variations generally see Abhimanyu learning to break into the chakravyuha while he was still in his mother’s womb. The Bheel Bharath does so, as does the Telugu variation of the story mentioned above.
In the Bheel Bharata, Abhimanyu breaks [breaks, destroys, rather than breaks into] one fort each day of the war, thus breaking six forts on the first six days of the war. The credit for breaking into the seventh fort goes to Bheema.
The Mahabharata war in the Bheel Bharath is a much simpler affair, lasting only seven days. Arjuna, the great hero of the war in the Sanskrit epic, does not participate in the war. Sometime before the war is decided upon, Krishna, expecting such an eventuality, sends Arjuna to the nether worlds ruled by Vasuki to fetch from there genuine rhinoceros hide, essential for making shields with. He returns only after the war ends.
In the Sanskrit epic Krishna does not actively fight in the war, but the Bheel Bharath tells us he fought on the Pandava side, though there are no descriptions of his battling.
There is no Drona, there is no Bheeshma, no Ashwatthama, no Kripa in the war. We do not know if Karna participated or not. There is no Drupada, Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki… No Draupadi’s children… It is just the seventy-eight Kauravas on one side and the Pandava brothers [minus Arjuna] and Abhi and Krishna on the other.
In the Bheel Bharath, Abhimanyu is the commander in chief of the Pandava army. His young wife Uttara is a magnificent character in the tribal epic, the Sanskrit Uttara paling into a shadow figure before her. Some of the most moving scenes in the entire tribal epic deal with her. When the war is declared, she is at her mother’s place and is desperate to reach Abhimanyu before it starts, for it is a sin for a warrior to die a ‘virgin’. However, Krishna sees she is delayed, and also that she is unable to bring with her the magical liquid [amar kuppi] with which she would be able revive Abhimanyu if he died.
Also, in the Sanskrit epic, Yudhishthira asks Abhimanyu to break into the chakravyuha. This puts some blame for the death of Abhimanyu on Yudhishthira. Some folk variations of the story absolve Yudhishthira from this blame – in them, it is Abhimanyu himself who volunteers to go and break into the chakravyuha and Yudhishthira tries to stop him. Eventually he has to bow before Abhimanyu’s insistence. In the Bheel Bharath, of course, Yudhishthira does not ask Abhimanyu to enter the vyuha/forts. He, Abhimanyu, is the commander-in-chief of the Pandava army, and the decision is his own. In fact, the war itself takes place because Abhimanyu insists that the Pandavas accept the Kaurava challenge to a war. It is Abhimanyu who ritually accepts the challenge, it is on his wrist the sanctified thread [rakhi] of the war is tied, thus making him the commander-in-chief.
Again, as in the Sanskrit epic where we find it difficult to accept Krishna’s reasons for killing Ghatotkacha at their face value, we find it extremely difficult to accept Krishna’s reasons for killing Abhimanyu. True, he is a Danava born as Subhadra’s child. But once born, he does not take a single step against the Pandavas or Krishna. It is as though once he is born as Subhadra’s son, he has completely forgotten he is a Danava and that his birth has a purpose – revenge upon Krishna. We see in Abhimanyu no consciousness of his being a Danava. The only things ‘demon-like’ in him are his fearlessness, his audacity, his superb skill.
And, perhaps, his making Indrani his woman. Indrani is his grandmother, for Indra is Arjuna’s father in Bheel Bharath too, though apart from the one single mention of it while describing how and from whom Kunti had her sons, the tribal epic does not refer to Indra as his father in spite of Indra is mentioned several times. Also, when the Pandavas reject Indrani and refuse to have her as the wife of one of them, it is for fear of Indra’s might that they do so, a fear that Abhimanyu does not have, and not on moral grounds – it is not because she is like a mother to them, particularly to Arjuna, since she is Indra’s wife. As Indrani stands in the Pandava court and begs them to keep her as the wife of one of them, not once is it mentioned, either by Arjuna or by any other Pandava brother, that she is Arjuna’s father’s wife and hence his mother. It is as though the epic has forgotten Indra is Arjuna’s father – and in that sense, what Abhimanyu does is not immoral.
The Bheel name for Abhimanyu indicates this fearlessness of the young hero. To the Bheels, he is Balo Emmant [Bal Himmat or Balo Himmat in Hindi], meaning Child Courage.
The tribal epic admits its own perplexity when it says after mentioning Abhimanyu’s death that God [meaning Krishna] has done something evil in the world.