This is extracted from an article published in slideshare.net
There is extensive on-line discussion about the “Chakravyuha” (for instance, war formations) as used in the Mahabharata.
Here is the scenario: Each day, the opposing armies setup formations. The Mahabharata names but does not describe any of these formations or how they functioned. Much sweat has been expended trying to figure this out from the name, and from other ancient Indian literature.
One formation plays a significant role in the epic — the “chakravyuha”. This is not to say that others are not mentioned (they are) but the effect of these other formations on the plot is very limited. The second most important one is probably the one used to delay Arjuna’s attempt to kill Jayadratha who Arjuna considered to be the one directly responsible for the death of Abhimanyu.
The Kaurava (“K”) army is arrayed in a chakravyuha and Arjuna, the only person who can fight against it is away. The boy Abhimanyu says he can break through the formation and if the breach is exploited by a sufficiently large force, the chakravyuha will fail. But, he does not know how to break out if the breach closes (in explanation, we learn of another belief of the writers of the Mahabharata — that the unborn child in the womb can hear and learn from things spoken around him/her). Unfortunately, Abhimanyu’s supporting force of Pandavas (“P”) fails to follow him – the breach closes and he is isolated, surrounded, and dies fighting.
The relevant questions are:
- What was the chakravyuha;
- what did Abhimanyu know, and
- what did he not know about breaking the formation.
The internet discussion revolves around various speculations and there are some truly amazing pictures that the discussants have put together.
These are pretty pictures, but pretty pictures do not a war strategy make.
How can we come closer to the truth?
Some background: The Mahabharata was written down between 400 BCE and 400 CE. Depending on what you believe that was about 1000, or 2000, or 3000 years after the war took place. The people who wrote it down were not idiots. They were most likely brahmins (which can come pretty close ?).
The description of the Mahabharata war shows that these writers knew squat about battlefields, battle strategy, what-not.
Why do I say that? Why am I, a South Indian brahmin, bad-mouthing these illustrious anonymous writers, possibly, even ancestors of mine?
Look at the evidence.
(Before we look at the evidence, let me point out that there IS a section of the Mahabharata where the description of a massacre is authentic and chilling. That is the description of how Ashwatthama kills the sleeping Pandava children and Dhristadyumna. Even the earlier description of Ashwatthama’s invocation of Shiva and his receiving the power to massacre from Mahadeva can be interpreted as the mental preparation of a warrior preparing to do something that he knows is an atrocity. And before that is a very realistic debate between Ashwatthama and Kripacharya which ends with Kripacharya’s acquiescence. I am not into blind criticism – there is much that is authentic in the Mahabharata. Just not the 18-day war!).
About 1.8 million soldiers took part in the war, about 1.1 million Ks and 0.7 million Ps. Every day for 18 days, these 900,000 soldiers (on average – since all of them die, on the average, there were 900,000 soldiers) got into a new formation and went to battle.
Now if you know anything about Indians, you know that this is the kind of thing they might attempt on the streets of Calcutta or Delhi, but not out in the boondocks of Haryana (where the battlefield of Kurukshetra is located) or Uttar Pradesh (rural India does know better). In any case, the process would involve some kind of orderly queuing up, all suited and booted (in armor, no less). Even if these were British soldiers (or better still, ultra-disciplined German SA), I can guarantee you that 18 days is not enough time for ONE formation of a million soldiers, let alone doing it in one day and then repeating 18 times.
So, just forming new vyuhas every day is difficult — that establishes that this was fantasy. I won’t go into the fantasy involved in having 1.8 million people fit into Kurukshetra whose population these days is not likely to be much more. (I have not actually checked this, so this should be red meat for the inveterate flamers). But India (Ancient India reduced by Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan) has about 500 districts, a population of 1.2 billion, which makes the average district be 2.4 million people and Kurukshetra is populated, densely of course, but it is within one district. Kurukshetra’s modern population density cannot be too far off. Kurukshetra is not Kolkata, where people have their nightly nap hanging out of bus doors, if you get my drift.
So, digressing no more, the scribes of the Mahabharata were playing out a fantasy. As part of this fantasy they came up with the idea of the chakravyuha.
Now there is nothing outrageous about the concept. The three elements of the chakravyuha concept are:
- a dense impenetrable front,
- a formation that traps and kills an intruding force, and
- an intruding force that makes a direct frontal attack on the impenetrable.
(The unfortunate Maginot Line of World War 2 comes to mind).
The “dense impenetrable front” could be a formation like a hoplite formation. The “trap and kill” could be a frontal array with hidden flanking forces. A sufficiently strong army (larger than the defenders) would allow a large forward force to apparently get trapped and then when the flanks are deployed, surround them. If we stick with just these the story could make sense.
But then reality intrudes.
The hoplite formation which the Spartans employed, with some success, during the Peloponnesian wars was a round mass of infantry with shields locked to each other along the boundary. The inner layers held their shields above their heads. This monster, often circular (and maybe that is where the chakra in chakravyuha comes from), then provided a protected advance on the fortress of an opposing force. When they reached the fortress, they would then move around the walls until they came to the doorways. The innermost core of the formation would then come to front – this team would vary depending on the kind of doorway – a battering ram or “Greek fire” (probably petroleum) could be used to break through the door.
Note that the hoplite is an offensive formation for use in sieges. That is not claimed to be the situation in the Mahabharata.
Next consider the chakravyuha as a formation that envelops and overwhelms an intruding force. There is nothing wrong with this concept either. Armies have kept hidden forces on their left or right flanks that only come into play when the intruding enemy force is far enough away from their home base. The intruding force is encircled (and that’s another place where the word “chakra”, i.e. circle, in chakravyuha may have come from). But no army general is going to announce to his opponents “Hey, look! My troops are in a chakravyuha. Nyah-na-na-nyah-nyah! Just come in and my right flank will screw you! Your mother, too!“ or words to that effect. (A note to the curious: “Nyah-na-na-nyah-nyah” is a technical term?).
I hope it does not come as a surprise that army generals were not always as civilized or mature as we might imagine them to be. But (note!) the army generals above are the non-existent kind, and they can BE anything (sorry, can’t help digressing, but then that is what the Mahabharata is about).
Being Brahmins, the scribes had no idea what they were describing and they wanted to get to the story quickly (if you know the Mahabharata, you know that “quickly” is a relative concept?).
So the Ks are arrayed in a chakravyuha and the chakravyuha is wreaking havoc on the Ps army. The Pandava generals (Yudhishthira, Dhristadyumna, Bhima, etc.) discuss the situation and then, reluctantly, authorize Abhimanyu to attack it. “We’ll have your back” they say, “but you do it. By yourself. Go, man!!”
You may recall that I mentioned that the attacking force MUST be “sufficiently larger”.
The given wisdom during the wars of the twentieth century (WW1 and WW2) was that a frontal attack on an impenetrable defense line required the attacking army to be THREE times the size of the defense forces! For D-day, Eisenhower did not commit to the plan until the Allies had at least that many troops in each sector. So, the concept of Abhimanyu frontally attacking any defensive/trap formation by HIMSELF while his supporting force consisting of a small fraction of the smaller Pandava army follows “close” behind is a bit of a excessive bite.
The bottom line: the story of Abhimanyu and the chakravyuha is not reasonable.
Is there any way we can make sense of the story of Abhimanyu?
If such a tragic event took place, one might surmise that the real story is about a young, inexperienced prince who impetuously decides to attack a defensive Kaurava outpost, does not take enough troops, and is overwhelmed and killed. That would make sense as a story. It wouldn’t be very long, but it would be a likely story.
The follow-through to such a likely story is how Arjuna, Abhimanyu’s father, is angry at his own people for not being incompetent; he then vows revenge on the leader of the troop that killed his son. Such a vow is not unreasonable. He attacks the leader, knowing that a solar eclipse is due just before sunset. He may have had a sniper or snipers in hiding). The opportunity comes during the eclipse – when the sun appears to set, the defenders relax a bit and step back from their positions against the barricades – the leader is exposed for a brief moment and he is killed by one or more arrows.
Why would the scribes make up such a story. Some versions of the story attribute the eclipse to Krishna’s miraculous powers as an incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna, we are told, caused the eclipse to happen by his divine powers. The scribes made up something that they knew nothing about figuring that it was so long ago that nobody really cared for “accuracy in reporting” (AIR, also known as Doordarshan), but they still wanted to keep the story of Krishna’s miracle.
Now, THAT makes a lot of sense.
The whole story survived and was embellished because the miracle was ascribed to Krishna, who we all know is God, and who could have wiped the Ks off the surface of the earth with his little finger (if he had wanted to…) but who decided, “Noooooo… I’d rather see these two armies kill each other while I get a ring-side seat. Dang! I should have known about Sanjaya – now Dhritarashtra has a safe ring-side seat and I get to run around getting attacked in the middle of battle.” But then He is God, and We know that Nobody could have harmed Him.
That’s it for today. Thanks for listening.