What was the right strategy for Abhimanyu to defeat the Padmavyuha formation from the Mahabharata?

Answer by Navin Pai:

OK, I think I’ll give this one a shot, based off of the stories my  grandmother used to tell me, along with some (very basic) tactics  research.

First  off, it is difficult to imagine the scale of this formation. The  Mahabharat was one of the largest wars ever fought, and armies used a  scale of measure known as Akshauhini to measure strength. As single  Akshauhini consisted of  21,870 chariots, 21,870 elephants; 65,610  cavalry and 109,350 infantry[1]. Now, it is said that over the course of  the war, 18-20 Akshauhini senas (armies) were killed. I do not have to  do the calculations for you to figure out how huge the armies actually  were. And this in a concentrated around the Kurukshetra, which is  roughly 48 x 128 Km in area[2]. That makes a very dense war.

So I imagine that there were enough men to spare for a formation like the  Chakravyuha, more so when:

  • It was designed by Drona, one of the smartest tactician on the side of the Kauravas
  • The prize was (originally) Yudhisthira, who was the leader of the Pandavas

The  formation was designed as a spinning wheel (hence the “chakra” in the  name) and a puzzle (hence the “vyuh”), with the formation in a constant  state of rotation…. the rotation may be seen as the motion of the  helix of a screw. The formation was also called Padmavyuh (or the Lotus  formation)[3]. Also, the inner layers were made of of soldiers, each  stronger than the ones on the immediate outer layer. Let us use a gaming  terminology and call the warriors as levels. Level 7 being the  strongest, and lower level warriors at the outside. Here is what would  happen to anyone entering through the mouth (now imagine the same thing  happening DURING WAR)….

And remember, this doesn’t mean the person who entered ran around the maze. The maze engulfed him.. yeah, imagine that:

Think  about it… the warrior is in a constant state of battle while the  formation circles around him. He keeps getting tired, while the further  inside he goes, the less worn out fighters he meets! Both physically and  mentally, this makes it difficult for the warrior who has entered.

Now,  the Chakravyuh was a brilliant military tactic. Basically it was a  juggernaut. The whole formation continuously spun across the  battlefield, continuously fighting, and the moment one member of the  formation was killed, there was a sliding motion that propagated from  the position held by the killed man, right upto the center of the  formation, thus ensuring that at all times, there existed a continuous  maze.

Now coming to the Abhimanyu bit of it. Let’s see the following points:

  • It  may seem logical to enter the Chakravyuh right when the mouth is right  in front of you. As can be seen, you only have to get through 3 circles  of soldiers to get through the center. However, herein lies the catch.  The moment anyone entered the formation through the mouth, the mouth  closed, effectively trapping the person within it…. and facing Level 4  warriors.
  • Also, the warrior  density was more at the center compared to the outside, so it would be  preferable to reduce the density by (basically) decreasing the strength  of the formation (i.e kill more people) to force them to increase the  gap between each other to keep the formation going.

Now, if you’ll excuse my pathetic diagrams , I’ll try explain how Abhimanyu broke in (and could (probably) have broken out).

Now,  a method that unarguably most people would try would be to attack the  person right in front of them, as shown below. Now, what would happen is  that while the warrior may successfully manage to kill the man in front  of him, but his position is instantly taken over by the man to his  right, thereby making a breach impossible.

Now assuming the color blue indicates a neutralized enemy, here’s what happened:

So, here is the technique Abhimanyu used (apparently he learnt about it as a foetus. Mind blowing eh?):
Abhimanyu,  the son of the great archer Arjuna, took out, in quick succession the  people to the left and right instead of up front.

Now,  what this did was, create a movement of soldiers to cover up the gaps,  but for a brief period, left the position right in front of Abhimanyu  open

Now  by using this technique, one may assume that he managed to get through  the first few levels easily, but on the inside, as the density of  warriors increased, the gap created lasted for shorter and shorter  periods of time, making it more and more difficult. Also, no doubt, the  constant rotation would have started playing mind games, but Abhimanyu’s  strategy involved simply creating a path straight though the formation.

Now,  the original deal was that Abhimanyu creates gaps and storms in, and  other Pandavas follow him. But that plan backfired because (I guess) the  formation regained shape quickly enough to prevent people from  following Abhimanyu. Why they didn’t follow the same technique is  something I simply do not know. Perhaps it took a skilled archer to take  out 2 people quickly and get in through the gap, and very few people  (as Drona himself is said to have acknowledged) were as skilled as  Abhimanyu.

So, over time, Abhimanyu keeps going deeper and deeper, all alone.

Making  it to the center, Abhimanyu had to face a high density ring on the best  warriors on the Kaurava side, both physically and mentally exhausted. Perhaps, he could continue with this same technique to break out as well. If the  Pandavas had followed him in as planned, they would have more warriors  on the inside, and breaking out would be easier. If the breached the  centre, then the formation may have collapsed on itself. But it’s all  ifs and buts.

It  is said that upon the breach, the whole formation broke and converged  upon Abhimanyu, making it one man against a continuous onslaught of  others. It is difficult to see how long he could survive the attack with  nowhere to escape to.

And that is how it ended. Abhimanyu was killed, trapped in a maze that could, literally “screw” you!

UPDATE: People seem to be confused about the motion of the formation. It’s 2:40 AM here *yawns*, but I’ll try to quickly explain it out!

Let’s not view the formation as a single structure but a combination of 2 structures, a helix, and a multiply curved line. Here is the representation:

Now, for motion, only 2 soldiers become crucial… these are:

The soldier in the blue is responsible for starting the motion, say he takes a step diagonally forward to his left. This starts off a chain reaction, with each soldier taking the position of the soldier on his left, which over time (try to visualize this in your head). In other words, on his 2nd move, the guy to right of the man who starts the motion takes a diagonal step. which the guy on his right copies on his 3rd move. Now the point where the diagonal step is being taken, may be viewed as an exploitable weakness in the structure (I guess..) but this position changes fast enough to deceive the enemy.

The helix motion is initiated by the 2nd important soldier. It is his job to ensure no gaps are left between the 2 structures. So he moves accordingly to ensure the same, and that leads to the helix slowly spinning clockwise. (and forward). The helix is made up of the superior soldiers.

Now again, I’m not Drona, or a military tactician, so it’s difficult to predict if this indeed is how it operated, but in my opinion, this would make a pretty efficient labyrinth…. and all it takes is 2 long lines of soldiers

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akshauhini
[2] http://www.dharmakshetra.com/holy%20land/kurukshetra.html
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Padmavyuha

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Mohit Kumar

A simple person who likes to share his thoughts on this blog. Know more about me

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