MBK: 2.15: Abhimanyu’s Incomparable Power

After deciding to regroup the Kauravas, Droṇa went over to Susharma and said, “O King, your vow remains unfulfilled. Arjuna will doubtlessly accept your challenge again. Go with your brothers and draw that hero toward the south. We will try again to trap Yudhiṣṭhira.”

Susharma immediately left with his three remaining brothers. They were followed by the surviving Samshaptakas, Trigartas and Nārāyaṇas. All the warriors blew their conches and roared, their minds fixed on victory or death.

Seeing Susharma stationed across from him blowing his conch and shouting a challenge, Arjuna broke away from the Pāṇḍava army and rushed once more toward him. Gradual maneuvering brought him toward the south, as Droṇa arranged the rest of the Kaurava forces into the chakravyuha.

Soon the circular array was formed, with the invincible Kaurava chiefs stationed at its key points. In ranks the soldiers advanced toward the Pāṇḍavas. Duryodhana and his brothers stood in the center of the formation, supported by Karṇa and Kṛpa. At its head stood Droṇa and his son, backed by many kings and their forces, who spread out behind him in a vast circle.

As Droṇa closed on his foes, he let loose hundreds of winged arrows. Immediately, a massive wave of shafts flew toward the Pāṇḍava army, along with lances, darts, iron balls and battle-axes. The warriors’ cries filled the air.

Seeing that his enemies had arranged themselves in the impenetrable chakravyuha, Yudhiṣṭhira became thoughtful. Only Arjuna knew how to break that array. He had mentioned it to his brothers, but he had not told them the secrets he had learned from Droṇa. But Yudhiṣṭhira recalled Arjuna saying how he had once discussed the knowledge with Subhadrā and that Abhimanyu had overheard him speaking. The prince was their only chance. Yudhiṣṭhira called for him and said, “O son, I think that apart from yourself there are none in our army who can break the arrangement of troops now advancing toward us. Your father, Kṛṣṇa and Pradyumna are the only warriors on earth who know the secret of breaking it--and I understand that you are a fourth knower of this secret, having heard it from your sire. O heroic prince, Droṇa surely intends to push through our forces with this unbreakable formation. Throwing us into disarray, he will then try to capture me. Tell me, dear child, can you smash through these troops today?”

Abhimanyu stood proudly in his chariot. Clad in bright armor, his bow clasped in his hand and his standard waving in the breeze, the handsome youth looked exactly like a powerful hero among the gods. Although only sixteen years old, he was already one of the foremost fighters in the Pāṇḍava army. But he seemed uncertain as he replied to Yudhiṣṭhira. “O King, what you say is true. I am conversant with the method of breaking and entering this array, but I do not think it possible for me to get out again. My father has not yet taught me that knowledge. I will be like an insect impelled by anger to rush into fire. If any danger should befall me, I will be trapped.”

Yudhiṣṭhira reassured him. “Do not fear, O mighty-armed one. My brothers and I will be right behind you, along with Dṛṣṭadyumna, Sātyaki, and all the Pañchālas, Kekayas, Matsyas and Prabhadrakas. We will protect you from all sides.”

Bhīma, who had overheard the conversation, added, “We will follow you closely, O hero. Once we enter the array, we will smash it apart.”

Hearing his uncles’ assurances, Abhimanyu became confident. He raised his sword and loudly said, “Today I will achieve something that will glorify both my mother’s and my father’s family. I wish to please my father and my uncle. All creatures will see me, a single child of the Vrishnis, crush the enemy host. I will not consider myself the son of either Pārtha or Subhadrā if anyone I encounter today escapes with his life, or if I fail to enter the array.”

Yudhiṣṭhira blessed the prince. “May your words prove true, O son of Subhadrā, and may your strength increase even as you speak. Go now and we shall be not far behind you, supported by troops who are no less than the celestials.”

Abhimanyu looked at the advancing Kauravas. He ordered his charioteer, “O Sumitra, urge the horses toward Droṇa’s divisions. I will break his formation apart as the sun dispels clouds.”

Sumitra, the son of Kṛṣṇa’s charioteer, Dāruka, drove toward Droṇa. As the chariot thundered across the field he spoke with apprehension. “It is my duty to protect you, O best of men. Consider carefully the heavy burden that has been placed upon you. Droṇa is adept at all kinds of weaponry. He is surrounded by warriors who have yet to be defeated, all arranged in a mighty formation. You, on the other hand, are a child raised in luxury. You have not known the rigors of hard battle. This will certainly be your most difficult fight.”

Abhimanyu laughed. “O charioteer, who is this Droṇa? Who indeed are all these kṣatriyas supporting him? I would fight with Indra mounted on Airāvata and attended by the immortals. How are these foes competent to fight a battle with even a sixteenth part of me? I, who have the world-conquering Viṣṇu as my uncle and the famous Arjuna as my father, will not quake with terror at the sight of any enemy within the three worlds. Drive on, O Sumitra. Make straight for Droṇa.”

Sumitra looked at the solid wall of enemy troops. With a heavy heart he urged on the horses, which were caparisoned in gold and silver. The chariot raced toward Droṇa, with Abhimanyu firing volleys of arrows at him and all the warriors by his side.

Seeing the standard bearing the karnikara tree, Droṇa recognized Arjuna’s son. As the prince charged toward the Kauravas, he seemed like a young lion attacking a herd of elephants. Droṇa issued orders and began the counterattack.

Abhimanyu carefully directed Sumitra, and his chariot feinted from side to side as he came at an oblique angle toward the Kaurava ranks. Maintaining his fierce attack on Droṇa, he simultaneously hurled arrows at the warriors fighting at his sides and rear. As they fell back under his assault, Abhimanyu suddenly veered away to the right. Stunning Droṇa with a hundred steel shafts, he raced past him and broke into the formation as the Kauravas looked on in amazement.

A frightful encounter ensued as the outer rank of the formation broke apart. The confused battle between the prince and the densely packed troops appeared like the eddies produced when the Ganges meets the ocean. Large numbers of elephant fighters, horsemen, charioteers and foot soldiers closed in around Abhimanyu, all roaring in delight.

Subhadrā’s son began to cut down his foes with his arrows. He rushed about amid his enemies like a whirlwind. It seemed to the Kauravas as if they were contending with hundreds of Abhimanyus. As various musical instruments sounded, shouts of “Slay him!” “Fight with me!” and “Where are you going?” mixed with battle cries, the twang of bowstrings, and the clash of weapons. The cries of elephants, the roar of warriors, the tinkling of ornaments, and the clatter of chariot wheels combined to create a deafening and confused din that made everyone’s hair stand on end.

Abhimanyu ranged about slaughtering the Kaurava warriors by the hundreds of thousands. His speed and agility were incomparable. The soldiers who faced him were like moths flying into fire. Abhimanyu quickly covered the earth with the bodies of slain warriors, like a priest laying kusha grass on the ground during a sacrifice. Well-muscled arms graced with bracelets and gold bangles were lopped off, still clutching weapons. Other arms lay with their hands stretched out, looking like five-hooded serpents thrown about by Garuḍa. Handsome heads adorned with fine helmets and smeared with the best of perfumes rolled on the ground like ripe fruits fallen from trees.

Once within the Kauravas’ vyuha, Arjuna’s son careened in all directions. None of his foes could fix their aim on him, so swift was his momentum. His arrows flew like streams of golden sunlight. He brought down huge elephants with their riders, scattering their armors and caparisons. Horsemen fell from their saddles, slain by shafts that passed clean through their bodies. Their horses reared in fear and were cut down by Abhimanyu’s relentless volleys. The animals lay about weltering in gore, their eyes bulging and tongues hanging out.

Sending men and beasts to the blissful regions of departed heroes, Abhimanyu charged repeatedly, uttering fearful war cries. As he displayed various maneuvers, the Kaurava heroes thought him beautiful. They shouted in appreciation. Despite their best efforts to train their weapons on him, they could find no gaps in his defenses. Rather, as they approached him they were struck by dozens of his speeding arrows.

The Kauravas appeared like the Asura army mangled by Skanda. Subhadrā’s son moved fearlessly and swiftly through them, leaving a trail of carnage. Thousands of Kaurava fighters threw down their weapons and fled the fight. Forsaking their wounded relatives and friends, they ran wildly in all directions. Elephants ran screaming and swift horses galloped at full tilt away from Abhimanyu, leaping over the fallen soldiers who filled the blood-soaked earth.

Duryodhana was incensed. Reckless of his own safety, he rushed at Abhimanyu with a roar. Seeing this, Droṇa was alarmed and he shouted to the warriors around him, “Save the king!” Aśvatthāmā, Kṛpa, Karṇa, Śakuni, Śalya, and another half dozen heroes all converged on Abhimanyu. The young prince was covered with a thick downpour of arrows. Spinning on the terrace of his chariot he countered the arrows with his own, as Sumitra maneuvered his chariot clear. He pierced every one of his assailants with stinging arrows that could hardly be seen as they flew.

The Kaurava warriors then attacked Abhimanyu on all sides. They rained down their shafts by the thousands, but the prince either warded them off or dexterously evaded them. Some shafts penetrated his defenses and pierced his armor, but he did not flinch. Taking careful aim, he sent a dozen arrows that broke apart the chariot of King Ashmaka, a powerful Kaurava ally. With a further six arrows he slew the king’s four horses, his charioteer, and the king himself.

Seeing the monarch slain, the Kaurava soldiers turned and fled. Duryodhana and Karṇa fought side by side, sending their arrows at Abhimanyu in volleys. Bearing the arrows like a mountain bears showers of rain, Abhimanyu sped at Karṇa a powerful arrow capable of piercing his armor. It struck him on the shoulder and dug deep into his body. Pained, Karṇa shook like a hill in an earthquake and fell into a swoon.

Abhimanyu then stunned Duryodhana with sixteen arrows and followed that by slaying four more kings supporting the Kaurava. Śalya and Aśvatthāmā assailed him from both flanks at once. Exhibiting the speed and skill of his father, Abhimanyu shot his steel-tipped shafts at Śalya and sent him reeling in his chariot. As the arrows struck Śalya, Abhimanyu spun around and released a dozen more at Aśvatthāmā. Droṇa’s son was rocked by their force and he squatted down on the terrace of his chariot.

The Kauravas facing Abhimanyu fled in greater and greater numbers. Only the foremost heroes could stand against him. Even they were soon overpowered by his furious attack. As he ranged about on his glittering chariot, Siddhas and Cāraṇas praised him from the skies. The Kauravas also cheered him, feeling simultaneous awe and anger as they were forced back by his peerless martial skills.

Abhimanyu slew thousands of Kauravas--anyone who came before him. Śalya’s younger brother Madra, seeing Śalya afflicted by Abhimanyu, rushed angrily at him. He hurled twenty blazing darts at him, but the prince cut them to pieces. Abhimanyu counterattacked Madra with long shafts that shattered his chariot and cut off his arms, legs and head simultaneously. As Madra fell dead from his chariot, thousands of soldiers in his army charged angrily at Abhimanyu. Calling out their names as they attacked, they shouted, “You will not escape with your life today, even if it costs us our own lives.”

Subhadrā’s son met their attack with a deadly volley of arrows. He invoked celestial missiles he had received from his father and uncle. His bow resembled the blazing summer sun as he sent waves of horseshoe- headed and calf-tooth-headed shafts slamming into the Kaurava warriors, tearing them apart. With crescent-headed and barbed shafts Abhimanyu mangled his foes mercilessly. He carved through their divisions unchecked, dispersing them as the sun disperses mist.

Droṇa could not conceal his admiration for Arjuna’s son. Duryodhana had come up to him and the preceptor said, “Just see, O King, how this youthful prince advances against our forces, giving delight to his friends and relatives. I do not think any bowman is his equal. Surely he could annihilate our entire host, if he so desired.”

But Duryodhana was enraged. Still, he smiled and said to Karṇa, who had stopped next to him, “It is clear the preceptor is affectionate toward Arjuna’s son. Otherwise, why does he not slay him? None can resist the angry Droṇa when he stands with his weapons in battle. He spares this youth out of love for Arjuna. Protected by Droṇa, Abhimanyu is able to exhibit his prowess. Well, the time has come to kill him. O Karṇa, waste no time in slaying this arrogant child. Crush him at once!”

Dushashana heard his brother’s words and replied, “Leave this to me. I will slay him before the Pāṇḍavas’ eyes. Hearing that I have killed this boy, Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, the two braggarts, will surely go to the regions of the departed. Without doubt, all their kinsmen will be consumed by grief and will follow their path. Wish me well, O King. I will now challenge Subhadrā’s overly proud son.”

Dushashana rushed at Abhimanyu with a loud cry. He fired a shower of arrows, decked with buzzard feathers, that covered Abhimanyu’s chariot. The young prince smiled as he recognized his antagonist--and he struck him at once with two dozen shafts. Not tolerating the attack, Dushashana increased the ferocity of his own assault. He fired at Abhimanyu arrows and darts that blazed brilliantly as they flew toward him. The prince countered the missiles and returned his own in large numbers. Both combatants exhibited various maneuvers in their chariots, showing skills that delighted the onlookers. The Kauravas sounded all kinds of musical instruments and cheered as Dushashana pressed his attack on Abhimanyu.

Holding off his opponent’s attack, Abhimanyu called out to him, “By good luck I find before me a vain warrior of cruel deeds and lost righteousness--he who ever brays of his own prowess and knows only sinful deeds. With joy you pierced Yudhiṣṭhira and Bhīma with your wicked words. Pay for that crime now, O evil-minded one. Suffer for the sin of grasping the sinless Draupadī’s hair. Reap the fatal fruits of your ignorance, violence, covetousness and persecution of others. I shall now chastise you severely before all these warriors, thus freeing myself from the burden of anger I bear against you.”

In a matter of seconds Abhimanyu fixed an effulgent golden arrow on his bow and fired it with all his power. It dug deeply into Dushashana’s shoulder and he dropped his bow. Abhimanyu struck him with a further twenty-five shafts that burned like fire. Pierced on his chest and arms, the Kaurava squatted in pain and fell into a swoon. His charioteer quickly carried him from the fight.

Seeing Dushashana overpowered, Karṇa came to challenge Abhimanyu, but he too could not defeat the young warrior. Abhimanyu gradually forced him back with dozens of arrows. With his standard cut down and his armor shattered, Karṇa fell back and turned away. He was being supported by sons of Adhiratha, whom Karṇa considered his own brothers. One of them rushed at Abhimanyu in a rage. He launched a hundred arrows at him and sent up his battle cry. Abhimanyu turned to face the impetuous warrior. The young prince, whose mind was free from malice, struck Karṇa’s brother with thirty powerful arrows. He broke his standard, killed his horses, and shattered his chariot wheels. As his antagonist fired back, Abhimanyu lopped off his head with a crescent-headed shaft.

The Kaurava troops cried out in sorrow. None of them were able to face Abhimanyu, who stood on the field like a blazing sacrificial fire. He blew his conch and began to range among the Kauravas, sending deadly shafts in all directions. He slew thousands of men as he fought within the circle formation.

Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, the twins, Dṛṣṭadyumna, Drupada, Virata and other chiefs among the Pāṇḍavas had watched Abhimanyu break into the Kauravas’ midst. As he entered the vyuha like an elephant breaking through a copse of trees, he left a large gap in the outer ranks. The Pāṇḍavas made swiftly for the gap, intending to follow the boy into the formation.

Suddenly Jayadratha came forward and challenged the Pāṇḍavas. Placing himself between them and the smashed vyuha, the Sindhu king attacked all of them with profuse arrows. Empowered by Śiva’s boon, Jayadratha fought fearlessly. He checked all four Pāṇḍavas. According to Śiva’s boon, the Sindhu monarch did not encounter Arjuna, who was fighting with the Samshaptakas far away on the battlefield. Arjuna’s brothers could not overpower Jayadratha as they hurried to follow Abhimanyu.

The Pāṇḍavas were astonished. Unaware of the boon, they were amazed at Jayadratha’s ability to hold them all at bay. Even though the advancing Pāṇḍava warriors trained their weapons on him, they could not get the better of him. As they struggled to get past Jayadratha, the Kauravas reformed. The Pāṇḍavas looked on helplessly as the chakravyuha closed, trapping Abhimanyu inside.

Dozens of powerful Kaurava heroes came up to assist Jayadratha, praising his prowess in holding off the Pāṇḍavas. A fight took place on the edge of the Kaurava formation, while Abhimanyu wrought havoc within it. Faced by impenetrable ranks of warriors, the Pāṇḍavas saw no way to reach Arjuna’s son.

* * *

Within the formation Duryodhana grew increasingly anxious. No one seemed able to stop Abhimanyu. Whoever went before him was either immediately slain or forced to retreat. He had overpowered all the great Kaurava heroes, including Karṇa, Kṛpa, Aśvatthāmā, Śalya, Kṛtavarmā and Bāhlika. Duryodhana himself had been stung by his shafts, and even Droṇa seemed unable to check him.

As Duryodhana gazed at Abhimanyu hurtling among his forces like a fireball consuming everything in its path, Śakuni said, “We will not be able to slay this prince by fair means. Find some other way to kill him. All of us together must assail him before he destroys everyone.”

Hearing the suggestion, Karṇa said to Droṇa, “O preceptor, tell us how to kill Abhimanyu.”

Droṇa looked at Abhimanyu with respect and admiration. “Have any of you seen any weakness in that prince? Although you have all attacked him with care, you have not seen the slightest gap in his defenses. Indeed, all you could see was his whirling bow, constantly drawn to a circle, firing flaming shafts. That slayer of hostile heroes is affording me great delight, even as he afflicts my limbs with his burning arrows. I see no difference between him and his illustrious father.”

Karṇa grew impatient upon hearing Abhimanyu praised. His voice rang out again. “O Brahmin, I too have been wounded by this boy. Only my adherence to kṣatriya duty keeps me on the field. He has almost slain the king himself, and he is annihilating our troops. Please tell us how we can check him.”

“Abhimanyu is virtuous and faithful,” replied Droṇa. “He is powerful and has been taught by both Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. Arjuna has shown him how to encase himself in impenetrable armor. None of us will be able to strike him down.”

Droṇa lowered his head as he went on, “There is, however, a way by which we may be able to overcome him. O Karṇa, listen carefully. If you can cut his bow, the reins of his horses and his chariot wheels, then at the same time Kṛtavarmā can kill his horses and Aśvatthāmā can kill his charioteer, while Kṛpa, the king and I will attack him directly. Perhaps if six of us attack him simultaneously, we will be able to overpower him.”

Droṇa knew his advice was not in keeping with the codes of combat, but there seemed no alternative. Ultimately, as the Kaurava commander it was his duty to protect the army by whatever means. Heavy-hearted, Droṇa prepared to attack Abhimanyu along with the other five Kaurava chiefs. They surrounded the prince and Karṇa cut apart his bow. Kṛtavarmā then killed his steeds and Aśvatthāmā his driver. As Droṇa and Kṛpa assailed him from the front, Duryodhana attacked him from behind. With his horses killed and his chariot immobilized, the prince leapt down clutching his sword and buckler. Swiftly whirling his sword he cut down the arrows that sped toward him.

The six Kauravas closed on Abhimanyu as he fended off their attack with his sword and shield. Realizing he was hemmed in, Abhimanyu suddenly leapt high into the air. By his mystic power he remained in the sky. With his golden armor gleaming in the afternoon sun, he appeared like a great eagle as he roved about in the air. He displayed various motions known as the Koriska and others, wheeled about, and brandished his brilliant blue sword. Beneath him, the Kaurava soldiers were filled with fear, expecting him to fall upon them at any moment.

Droṇa gazed up and fixed his aim on Abhimanyu’s sword. With a razor-headed shaft he cut that weapon off at the hilt. At the same time, Karṇa broke apart his shield with four swift shafts. Abhimanyu descended weaponless from the sky and picked up a chariot wheel. Remembering how Kṛṣṇa had run at Bhīṣma holding a chariot wheel, he rushed at Droṇa. Covered in blood, his long hair flying in the wind, and his handsome face covered with dust from the field, the prince was beautiful as he ran with the wheel raised above his head. Even though overpowered and outnumbered, the son of Kṛṣṇa’s sister showed no fear.

As the boy came rapidly toward them with the steel-rimmed wheel, Droṇa and Kṛpa broke it into many pieces with their arrows. Abhimanyu snatched up a heavy mace that lay near him and bounded toward Aśvatthāmā, whirling the mace over his head. Seeing him charging at him like the three-eyed Śiva at the end of the yuga, Aśvatthāmā jumped off his chariot. As he landed on the ground, Abhimanyu’s mace descended like a blazing bolt and smashed the chariot to pieces, killing the horses and charioteer.

With arrows protruding from every part of his body, Abhimanyu whirled about, wielding his mace. In a matter of minutes he slew Śakuni’s brother Kalikeya, along with eighty of his followers. He then slew ten chariot fighters, followed by a dozen elephants and fifty Kekaya warriors. Dushashana’s son, Durjaya, charged on his chariot toward the prince. Abhimanyu quickly brought down his mace from above his head and killed Durjaya’s four horses, pressing them into the earth. Durjaya leapt clear, taking his own mace with him. Landing on the earth near Abhimanyu, he bellowed out a challenge.

Abhimanyu ran straight at Durjaya. The two combatants fought angrily, striking each other with their maces and producing sounds like thunderclaps. Finally, in one wheeling maneuver, they struck each other on the head and fell senseless to the ground.

After a few moments, Durjaya rose and lifted his mace again. Abhimanyu, fatigued from his long fight against so many opponents, slowly rose to his haunches. As he tried to get to his feet, Durjaya struck him on the crown of his head with his full force. Crushed by the blow, Abhimanyu dropped lifeless to the ground. As the Kauravas looked on, he fell backwards to the earth with his limbs thrown out.

Droṇa and the other Kuru chiefs surrounded the fallen prince. He appeared like a wild elephant slain by a hunter. Thousands of troops came around him. They looked on him as if he were a forest fire extinguished after consuming a forest during the summer season, or a tempest that had died down after crushing countless trees. He lay with a peaceful expression on his handsome face, his red eyes gazing up at the sky. Even in death he was as lustrous and splendid as the full moon in autumn.

The Kauravas roared with delight. Their indefatigable opponent was finally brought down. They danced about on the field waving their weapons. Overwhelmed with relief at being delivered from danger, they embraced one another and laughed loudly.

In the sky many ṛṣis and Siddhas looked down on the prince, who seemed to them like the moon dropped from the heavens. They let out cries of woe and exclaimed, “Alas, assailed at once by six Kaurava maharathas, this hero now lies slain. This was highly unfair.”

All around Abhimanyu was a scene of utter destruction. Innumerable men and animals lay slaughtered amid shattered chariots, weapons, armor and ornaments. The field was all but impassable, choked with the dead and the dying. Arms, legs and heads lay all around in a bloody mass. The battlefield assumed an awful appearance, which struck terror into the hearts of cowards.

The sun had reached the western horizon just as the prince was slain. With joy, the Kaurava troops withdrew from the field, leaving Abhimanyu lying amid the carnage he had created.

Hearing the Kauravas’ cheers, Yudhiṣṭhira could guess what had happened. As soon as he saw Jayadratha holding him and his brothers back, he had feared the worst. His fears were confirmed as news of Abhimanyu’s death reached him. Yudhiṣṭhira was distraught. He thought of Arjuna, still contending with the Samshaptakas. Soon he would return. What would he say when he heard that his young son had been sent alone into the chakravyuha? Yudhiṣṭhira trembled. Why had he allowed the boy to go? Only because he feared his own capture. He had caused Abhimanyu’s death. Turning to his other brothers, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “Subhadrā’s heroic son, having never shown his back in battle, has been slain. The child has now ascended to heaven. After slaying numerous warriors, he has followed in their wake. Doubtlessly the boy, who was equal in power to Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, has reached Indra’s opulent mansion.”

Although himself afflicted by grief, Yudhiṣṭhira tried to console his brothers and followers. “We should not grieve for this boy, who performed pious deeds. He has surely attained the regions of righteousness that are ever sought by the virtuous.”

In silent grief the Pāṇḍavas withdrew. As they made their way to their tent, they moved like wooden dolls. They slumped into their seats and sat gazing at the ground. Yudhiṣṭhira wept. “Desiring to please me, the prince penetrated Droṇa’s array like a lion entering a herd of cattle. He forced the best of the Kurus, all accomplished in weapons and fighting, to turn back. After crossing the Kauravas’ ocean-like array, killing many of their heroes, Kṛṣṇa’s nephew has gone to the next world. How can I even look at Arjuna or the auspicious Subhadrā bereft now of their beloved son? What meaningless, disjointed, and incoherent words will we speak to Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna when they return?”

Yudhiṣṭhira held his head in his hands. “Desiring only my own safety, I sent this child into battle. I have thereby injured Subhadrā, Arjuna and Keśava. A foolish man seeks his own gain without seeing the painful consequences that will result. Thus did I act covetously, oblivious to what was sure to happen. How could I have placed that child, who deserved every luxury and indulgence, in the thick of battle? Now he lies slain on the cold earth. We too will soon have to join him, consumed by the grief-laden glances of Arjuna.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s cries filled the tent. All the warriors and kings present also wept. Abhimanyu had been a great favorite among them. Even though he was only sixteen, he had not hesitated to join his father in the war. His guileless and cheerful attitude had endeared him to everyone.

“Although he was the son of one who could afford protection from the entire celestial host, still he has been killed. Surely now the Kauravas have become afraid. Filled with rage at the unfair killing of his son, Arjuna will annihilate them all. Soon the mean-minded Duryodhana, seeing his forces massacred, will give up his own life in grief. Alas, beholding the incomparable Abhimanyu fallen to earth, I can derive no pleasure either from victory, the kingdom, or even immortality itself.”

As Yudhiṣṭhira lamented, Vyāsadeva suddenly entered the tent. Yudhiṣṭhira composed himself and stood to receive the sage. Along with his brothers, he worshipped him and offered him a fine seat in their midst.

When Vyāsadeva was seated at his ease, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O great Ṛṣi, Subhadrā’s son has been slain in battle by a number of vicious bowmen who surrounded him on all sides. A mere child, he has been killed while contending with overwhelming numbers. Wishing to do us good, he penetrated the hostile array, but was trapped and slaughtered without mercy while we were held back by the Sindhu king. Alas, my heart has been seized by an unbearable sorrow.”

Vyāsadeva’s reply was gentle. “O King, O son, you possess superior wisdom and should not lament like this. Men of your caliber are never confused by calamity. The heroic Abhimanyu has reached paradise after slaying numerous enemies. His deeds far exceeded his years and he has attained everlasting fame. Why do you grieve? O Yudhiṣṭhira, no creature can violate the law of death. Death takes gods, Gandharvas, Dānavas, and all others away without fail.”

Comforted by Vyāsadeva’s presence, the Pāṇḍavas listened to his soothing words. When he stopped speaking Yudhiṣṭhira said, “So many of the earth’s rulers now lie shorn of pride and power. Striving in battle, filled with hopes of victory, they have fallen into the fire of their enemy’s anger. Now they lie motionless on the earth. Seeing such slaughter we have come to understand the meaning of death. O learned sage, why does death take men away? Wherefrom did death arise? O grandsire, please explain this to us.”

Vyāsadeva closed his eyes. Although he was emaciated and covered with dirt from his continuous austerities, he shone with a mystical effulgence that spread around him like the glow of the moon. Sitting cross-legged on the costly seat, he seemed like a dark gem set in gold. After a few moments, he began to narrate the ancient history of the origin of death in the world--how Brahmā first brought it into being. The sage then told the Pāṇḍavas about the many kings who had succumbed to death in the history of the world, even though they were rich in asceticism and pious merits.

After mentioning each of the departed kings and describing their sacrifices and pious acts, Vyāsadeva concluded, “When such personalities had to die, each of them far superior to the prince in point of piety, you should not lament for the boy. By laying down his life in battle he has gone to regions only attained by those who perform the foremost of sacrifices. There he will reside in unending bliss. No enjoyment in this world would be able to entice him away from where he has now gone, O King. He shines like a god in a splendid new body. We should grieve for those still living rather than those who have attained such an end.”

Vyāsadeva exhorted Yudhiṣṭhira to remain firm and to finish the fight. Grief achieved nothing other than to reduce the energy of those who indulged in it. The sage concluded, “Know this as truth, dear child. Rise up and gird your loins. Having heard about death and about Abhimanyu’s glorious end, give up your lamentation and remain firm in your duty.”

Yudhiṣṭhira asked the sage how Jayadratha had been able to hold him and his brothers in check, and Vyāsadeva told him about Śiva’s boon. “Thus was that weak king able to achieve this astonishing feat. Had it not been for him, you would have followed the boy and saved his life. Destiny is supreme, O King. No man can change fate’s course. Knowing this, take heart and perform your God-given duty. Surely the Lord’s inscrutable will is meant for the world’s welfare. If you simply follow His will, then you will understand everything in time.”

Vyāsadeva stood up and bade the Pāṇḍavas farewell, then disappeared. Yudhiṣṭhira was consoled, but he was still worried how to broach the news to Arjuna. He would be back at any moment. No one would have dared inform him of his son’s death on his way back to the tent. They would leave it to Yudhiṣṭhira to do. The king looked at Abhimanyu’s empty seat, now draped with his banner. Breathing heavily, Yudhiṣṭhira watched the tent entrance as it flapped in the evening breeze.