Mahabharata a legendary epic. It doesn’t just teach us the essence of life, it also has deadly warfare formations hidden in it.
How big was the war?
Going by the numbers described in the epic, Mahabharata is one of the bloodiest wars that has ever happened during the history of mankind. 18 Akshauhinis fought altogether and just 12 people survived the war. ie around 4 Million people are believed to be killed in the Mahabharata war. Considering that the total population of the world 5000 years back as per HYDE’s estimate is ~45Millioin, the war is supposed to have consumed ~10% of Human population in 18 days, which is unbelievable humongous.
For a comparison around 14 million people were killed in World War 1 (over 4 years) and around 60 Million People were killed in World War 2 (over 6 years) which accounted to 1% and 3% of the total world population of that time.
Going by the numbers described in the epic, in 18 Akshouhinis, a total of 3,936,600 people, 393660 Elephants, 1180980 horses, and 393660 Chariots (each having 4-8 horses) took part in the war. This math is somehow hard to digest as the existence of 400,000 domesticated Elephants and >3 Million domesticated horses in the Indian Subcontinent 5000 years back is a highly debatable story. There is definitely a high likelihood of the numbers being exaggerated in the epic, but on the other hand, with the way the military structures and construction of an army is detailed in the epic, it’s also hard to doubt the numbers described in the epic.
Here are few of the formations as described in Mahabharata .
1. Chakra Vyuhas – Formation of concentric circles in layers
Chakravyuh can be named as the most splendid military strategy of all time. Chakra signifies “turning wheel” and “vyuha” implies arrangement. Thus, chakravyuha implies the confounded game plan of warriors that continues moving as a turning wheel. Rotation of soldiers is fundamentally the same as a helix of a screw commonly observed watches. The most noted chakravyuha in Mahabharata war was organised by Drona, one of the sharpest military strategists of his period. The goal was to take yudhisthira, the pioneer of the Pandavas, as wartime captive.
2. Chakra Shakata Vyuha – Formation of a cartwheel
Chakra Shakata Vyuha is a cautious formation that was utilised by Drona on the fourteenth day of Mahabharata war to ensure Jayadratha. In this formation, ruler or any VIP minister that should be shielded from the enemy is set at the focal point of the arrangement and is encompassed by a roundabout formation of a soldier, elephants and infantry. Mounted force shaped the internal bit of the formation while elephants monitored the external side of the development.
3. Mandala vyuha – Circular formation
Bhisma picked ‘Mandala Vyuha’ formation on the seventh day of the war. Mandala Vyuha is a cautious formation that is extremely hard to infiltrate for the rival armed force. The commander-in-chief, arranged at the focal point of the formation, for the most part, leads the armed force and is encompassed by a few little group of armed force men, every group lead by a Maharathi (One who can vanquish a great many warriors with a solitary strike).
4. Vajra vyuha – In the shape of the thunderbolt formation
Pandava picked “Vajra Vyuha” to counter Mandala Vyuha formation. This formation was additionally utilised on the first day of the war. In this formation, all maha-rathis are arranged at the focal point of the square formation and are encompassed by infantry from all sides. Dhristyadhumna lead the formation and was followed by the five Pandavas.
5. Ardha Chandraakara vyuha – Crescent shape formation.
Arjuna organised this formation in the conference with the administrator of Pandava armed force “Dhristadhymna” on the twelfth day of the war. On the outrageous right of the development was the intense Bhima with Satyaki and five children of Draupadi while Abhimanyu took the extraordinary left position. Yudhisthira was put at the centre of the formation. Drupada and Virata lead the armed force from the front. They were helped by Neel, Dhristaketu, Dhristadhymna and Shikandi. At the tip of the formation was arjuna on his chariot with Lord Krishna.
6. Krauncha vyuha formation – Krauncha is bird with a sharp pointed beak
Krauncha vyuha, an exceptionally hostile formation, was, for the most part, endeavoured to prompt dread in the enemy armed force. Krauncha vyuha was utilised by Pandava armed force on the second day of Mahabharata. Lord “Kuntibhoja” was put in the eye of the formation while ruler Drupada was located at the head of the formation. The neck of the flying creature was taken up by the soldiers of Satyaki. Bhima and Dhristadhymna form the wings of the formation that were monitored by sons of Draupadi and Satyaki.
7. Makara Vyuha – Makara – Crocodile formation
Kaurava Commander “Bhishma” organised his armed force in this formation on the fifth day of the war. To counterattack this formation, Arjuna, Yudhisthira and Dhristadhyumna decided on sell formation of their armed force. Every single principle warrior on both sides was doled out unique spots and obligations in the formation. Pandava chooses “Makara vyuha” on the 6th day of the war yet later quit to pick Krauncha Vyuha.
Different strategies of warfare formations were used during the intense 18 days battle. A total of 17 formations were used, namely:
- Krauncha vyuha (Heron formation)
- Makara vyuha (Crocodile formation)
- Kurma vyuha (Tortoise or Turtle formation)
- Trishula vyuha (Trident formation)
- Chakra vyuha (Wheel or Discus formation)
- Kamala vyuha or Padma vyuha (Lotus formation)
- Garud vyuha (Eagle formation)
- Oormi vyuha (Ocean formation)
- Mandala vyuha (Galaxy formation)
- Vajra vyuha (Diamond or Thunderbolt formation)
- Shakata vyuha (Box or Cart formation)
- Asura vyuha (Demon formation)
- Deva vyuha (Divine formation)
- Soochi vyuha (Needle formation)
- Sringataka vyuha (Horned formation)
- Chandrakala vyuha (Crescent or Curved Blade formation)
- Mala vyuha (Garland formation)
Chakravyuha, is a deadliest formation. Its like a one way, once in, your almost dead. going inside this is a suicide mission.
The Chakravyuha, is a multi-tier defensive formation that looks like a disc (chakra, चक्र) when viewed from above. The warriors at each interleaving position would be in an increasingly tough position to fight.
As per this military strategy, a specific stationary object or a moving object or person can be captured and surrounded and rendered fully secured during time of military conflict. The pattern is of two soldiers on both sides with other soldiers following them at a distance of three hands, drawing up seven circles and culminating in the end which is the place where the captured person or object is to be kept. In order to make Chakravyuha, the Commander has to identify soldiers who will form this formation. The number of soldiers to be deployed and the size of the Chakravyuha is calculated as per the resistance estimated. Once drawn, the foremost soldiers come on either side of the component to be captured, engage briefly and then move ahead. Their place is taken up by the next soldiers on either side, who again engage the component briefly and then move ahead. In this fashion, a number of soldiers keep on passing the component and keep on moving in a circular pattern. By the time the last bit of soldiers arrive, the component, oblivious of the design is captured within seven tiers of soldier formation surrounding him from all sides. The last soldiers of the formation give the signal of completing the Chakravyuha. On the signal, every soldier who so far has been facing outwards, turn inwards to face the component. It is only then that the captured component realizes his captivity. The Chakravyuha keeps on moving in a spherical order and can easily lead the component away in captivity as well.
Formation of Chakravyuha is never visible from the ground. But anyone from above can easily decipher the movement. It is a hopeless no escape situation for the captive. This is correct on formation of Chakravyuha. This strategy was applied during prehistoric days. The component even if heavily guarded, cannot escape the web of a chakravyuha.
The formation was used in the battle of Kurukshetra by Dronacharya, who became commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army after the fall of Bhishma. It is the most renowned among the different formations used in the Mahabharata war, simply because this was part of the turning point in the war. Drona made the Chakravyuha with 6 layers under the guard of 6 Maharathis – Karna, Drona, Ashwatthama, Dushasana, Shalya and Kripacharya. Duryodhana was positioned at the centre with different warriors at the various layers. Jayadratha and his army were at the gate of this vyuha.
How did the Chakra-Vyuha look like?
The Classical 7 circuit labyrinth is the most accurate simplification of the complex structure of Chakra-Vyuha. There are 8 possible forms
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Note that the formation is not visible from the ground, simply because each of the layers of the maze are not, in fact, a single row of soldiers, but a huge battalion of army which has a depth of tens or hundreds of soldiers, And the layers are not uniform either, they contain several small death traps widespread all over the formation. And the path between 2 layers is also multifold wide through which a battalion could pass through. So from the ground, it would simply seem to be a big passage on either side of which the enemies’ army are busy fighting. Only the inner row is facing the warrior or army that passes through the maze. The outer layer is busy facing the next outer passage. The formation was not static, it rotated along its centre and the maze structure was changed while it’s rotating. By looking at the picture, if you can quickly find the path to reach the centre, please recall that this structure was highly dynamic i.e. each small details are subjected to change all of a sudden. Arrangement and direction of the rings keep changing based on pre-indicated signals and commands issued by the army-commander though drums/conch/sound.
Movement of soldiers is controlled by the drum beats which informs the soldiers to make the move uniformly in a particular direction. If any soldier in the formation gets killed, his position is covered up by the sliding motion of the soldiers following him till the space left by him is completely accommodated. This technique ensured that the maze existed at all times with soldiers distributed uniformly.
How Chakra-Vyuha Was formed?
As per this military strategy, a specific stationary object or a moving object or person can be captured and surrounded and rendered fully secured during the time of military conflict. The pattern is of two soldiers on both sides with other soldiers following them at a distance of three hands, drawing up seven circles and culminating at the end which is the place where the captured person or object is to be kept. In order to make Chakra-Vyuha, the commander has to identify soldiers who will form this formation. The number of soldiers to be deployed and the size of the Chakra-Vyuha is calculated as per the resistance estimated. Once drawn, the foremost soldiers come on either side of the component to be captured, engage briefly and then move ahead. Their place is taken up by the next soldiers on either side, who again engage the component briefly and then move ahead. In this fashion, a number of soldiers keep on passing the component and keep on moving in a circular pattern. By the time the last bit of soldiers arrives, the component, oblivious of the design is captured within six or seven tiers of soldier formation surrounding him from all sides. The last soldiers of the formation give the signal of completing the Chakra-Vyuha. On the signal, every soldier who so far has been facing outwards, turn inwards to face the component. It is only then that the captured component realizes his captivity. The Chakravyuha keeps on moving in a spherical order and can easily lead the component away in captivity as well. Formation of Chakra-Vyuha is never visible from the ground. But anyone from above can easily decipher the movement. It is a hopeless ‘no escape’ situation for the captive. This strategy was applied during the prehistoric days. The component even if heavily guarded, cannot escape the web of a Chakra-Vyuha.
What makes it the deadliest of all the Vyuhas?
In The Mahabharata, it is said that this particular formation was so terrifying that there was almost no one who wished to make a stand against it. We know that usually, every military formation has its weakness. But the ‘Chakra-Vyuha’ was immune to any kind of known counter-attacks. Usually, there were seven layers, level 7 being the innermost layer consisting of strongest soldiers. Soldiers of the inner level were technically and physically stronger than the soldiers of the immediate outer level. Infantry formed the outer layers of Chakravyuh and the inner layers were formed by armoured chariots and elephant cavalry. At the centre of Chakravyuh, are the best of warriors awaiting to kill the invading warrior. Weak and strong warriors are strategically placed in each of the layers, either to inflict the maximum damage to the opposing warriors or to defend the attacks from skilled warriors of the enemy.
Each layer has openings that were closely protected by one of the highly skilled warriors and his personal troops. Role of soldiers in outer layers was to only prevent the entry of warrior into the layer. If the layer is broken, the aim of outer layer soldiers is to prevent further entries and not to attack the warriors who already breached the layer. All the infantry were tightly massed so as not to allow the incoming chariot to breach the layer easily. Skilled archers in armoured chariots, cavalry and elephants on the inner layer would easily fire arrows over the heads of infantry on the outer layer to kill the infantry of enemy warriors. This formation ensured the safety of the infantry from enemy warriors who are trying to breach the Chakravyuh. This defensive formation would be very difficult to breach as any attack by enemy warriors in the outer layer would draw the concentrated attention and attack of all centred archers. Soldiers near the mouth are always stronger and more skilled compared to the remaining regions. So, the warrior is most likely to get killed if entered through the mouth. Now imagine the situation where a warrior doesn’t try to enter the maze but is just content with fighting the outermost layer. The Chakravyuha formation keeps revolving around its axis where each solder is replaced by the one on his right, and the formation also rotates around a distance axis. With the magnitude of the formation, one will not be able to realize his relative position with respect to the whole formation, and at some point, the mouth of the formation will move around to engulf him, even without his realization. So even if someone is static, he is still engulfed by the formation. Even if someone knows that this is Chakravyuha, and he tries to penetrate it by breaking the layers, it’s not that easy to create a gap to enter since any gap is closed immediately. If somehow he is successful in penetrating one layer, he would end up fighting the stronger soldiers in the innermost layer.
If somehow the warrior is successful in killing many soldiers of a particular layer, then he is forced to go inside another layer to get attacked by more ferocious and seasoned warriors. As a result, as he enters deep and deep inside the Chakravyuh, he keeps getting tired both physically and mentally and finally, gets pounded by the enemy. So irrespective of what one does, the Chakravyuha is designed to engulf the enemy, and either kill him as he goes through the maze, or spare his life, but weaken him until he’s taken captive along the route. This makes it one of the deadliest formations.
Why is it so hard to break?
As Vyasdeva narrated in Mahabharata, once Chakra-Vyuha was formed during the thirteenth day of the war, Yudhistira was not able to visualize Dronacharya. The structure of Chakra-Vyuha can not be comprehended by one’s naked eye. The justification is that the size of Chakra-Vyuha is monstrous. That is why one could not see distant parts of the formation. While going through the details of Chakra-Vyuha, please keep in mind that the entire formation consumed a land area of around 77 km X 77 km, that is almost double the size of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata combined. Atop of that, the structure rotates like a spinning discus with unpredictable movement.
This behemoth has seven layers, each layer being stronger and harder to penetrate than the immediate outer ones. That means, if a warrior managed to penetrate through the layers, the difficulty would increase as the warrior progressed towards the centre. Chakra-Vyuha was like a mammoth self-healing machine. So irrespective of what one does, the Chakravyuha is designed to engulf the enemy, and either kill him as he goes through the maze, or spare his life, but weaken him until he’s taken captive along the route. This makes it one of the deadliest formations. It was a well-known fact that Chakra-Vyuha could only be destroyed from within.
Was it as simple as a rotating discus?
The frightening Chakra-Vyuha was not formed by seven concentric circles. The design was focused on absorbing the enemy attacks to the highest extent. Once the outer wall had been breached, the warriors of inner layers would offer only the minimum necessary resistance to the incoming. To counter such ‘invasion‘-s, the Chakra-Vyuha relied primarily on numerical and strategic advantage; instead of offensive force. Once an enemy entered, no matter how dangerous he seemed to be, Chakra-Vyuha focused on fleshing out his stamina, slowly but steadily. It was ultimately how much the enemy could endure. It was like a poison, killing you slowly from inside. The seemingly ‘opening‘ was the ‘mouth’ of the Chakra-Vyuha, which swallowed an enemy warrior. Due to the immense size of Chakra-Vyuha, the warrior will not be able to understand the trap. The warrior, even without noticing, will likely be already within the Chakra-Vyuha. Even that is not the end, to turn this defensive formation into a perfect killing machine, strategies were devised so that the entire formation could rotate around its axis i.e. the centre. The rotation was not something simple like clockwise or anti-clockwise; rather it depended upon the commander’s order. Once the enemy entered through the mouth, it became the job for the immediate inner layer, who were facing our warrior right away, to fight him. That means, under no circumstances, the soldiers could leave his position.
What are the objectives of making such a complex Vyuha?
The sheer size of the Chakra-Vyuha restricted itself from moving fast. It was slow, but steady focused on its target. The objective of the Chakra-Vyuha was not increasing the kill count, it was more like a dedicated mission of making captive and bringing the target to custody. It focused on accomplishing its goal and was dedicated only on that purpose, no matter whatever barrier comes in its way. Now you can imagine why the Chakra-Vyuha used to inflict a spine-chilling sensation even to the legendary warriors. And probably you can also apprehend now, that, it was almost a suicidal mission to enter a Chakra-Vyuha and make it collapse.
What if one destroys the core?
Well, the most insane part is still not being mentioned – The Technique to “Exit the Chakra-Vyuha”. That is after you manage to destroy the centre, making your way out. Yes, the difficulty of entering into the formation may seem like nothing, when compared against that of the return trip. When a warrior starts to enter Chakra-Vyuha, he will be at the peak of his stamina, unharmed. But if the warrior was lucky enough to survive to think of making his way out, by then, he would be wounded, bruised, covered with blood, almost out of energy. When the warrior was on his way towards the centre, the Chakra-Vyuha usually fought defensively, to retain its layout intact. But, once the core is destroyed, the ocean of lakhs of soldiers would jump upon the warrior. During the phase of entering the Chakra-Vyuha applied a slow-kill approach; but after the destruction of its core, it would switch to instant-kill mode.
Who were the mighty ones, capable of destroying the Chakra-Vyuha?
There was a saying, that, the exclusive technique to stop this Juggernaut was known to only 9 living beings at the time of Kurukshetra war, but only 7 of them participated in the Kurukshetra war.
There were only 2 people on the Pandava side, who had complete knowledge about Chakra-Vyuha (Abhimanyu had an incomplete knowledge)
On the Kaurava side, 5 people knew about it (these are my speculations) :
The other two people, who decided not to fight on the war were:
- Parashurama (this is my speculation)
Why Arjuna was not there when he was the only Pandava fighter to know the trick?
According to Mahabharata, on Pandava’s side, only Krishna and Arjun knew the means to counter the legendary Chakra-Vyuha. Arjun was the most feared archer (apart from Krishna, who is supreme), and probably he had too many trump cards under his sleeve to stop Dronacharya from deploying Chakra-Vyuha as long as he was present in the battlefield. Now, Krishna was the charioteer for Arjun. You can easily imagine what would happen if both of them had to enter Chakra-Vyuha. Krishna could take care of the strategy; that left Arjun enough freedom to concentrate on devastation only. The Chakra-Vyuha stood no chance against the duo. Hence, Dronacharya made the pirate warriors from the land of Trigarta challenge Arjuna as Samsaptakas and diverted him away from the main battlefield. Once both of them were away, Dronacharya unveiled his deadly Chakra-Vyuha.
Why didn’t Arjuna taught the other Pandavas how to break the Chakra-Vyuha?
Probably the reason was, the knowledge was never meant to be ‘memorized’. Instead, it was more aligned to being ‘realized’. One needed to apply his intuition and analytical skill to achieve it. That explains why warriors possessing this attribute were such rare. No matter how much force is applied, the Chakra-Vyuha would take the hits and move ahead to its mission; one needed to “know” where to hit. Moreover, it is repeatedly confirmed in Mahabharata that almost no one “knew” how to enter the Vyuha. This precedence of precision over brute-force implies that the Chakra-Vyuha was, in fact, a massive labyrinth. Making way through it was not a task even for heavy hitters like Bheem.
Why was not Chakravyuha implemented more often?
We don’t hear about Chakra-Vyuha, other than the 13th day of Kurukshetra war. In fact, the Chakravyuh was formed just for a single time in the story of Mahabharata. Probably because:
- This Vyuha requires a large number of soldiers to be formed. When formed by a small number of soldiers, it can be easily engulfed by the opposition from all sides and crushed from outside the view.
- This formation was best to be formed when no one in the enemy has the clue on how to break it. Since Arjuna and Krishna knew the technique of breaching the Chakravyuh successfully, it was not implemented more often as it causes a lot of damage to the soldiers within the formation if Arjuna was able to disturb the rhythm of the formation and create a panic. Moreover, Arjuna had all the Divyastras to destroy everyone around him and would have caused massive destruction among the Kauravas, had he entered it. Also, on the Kaurava side, Drona, Bhisma and Karna knew the art of breaching Chakravyuh.
- Implementation of Chakravyuh requires excellent planning and execution else it results in extreme chaos and confusion. The human cost involved in Chakravyuh formation is extremely high as many lives are lost on both sides of the war in a relatively short period of time.
Are Chakra-Vyuha and Padma-Vyuha the same?
On the contrary to common assumption, Chakra-Vyuha(Discuss Formation) is not the same as Padma-Vyuha(Blooming Lotus Formation). Padma-Vyuha is another complex defensive formation which used to have five or more wings. The Padmavyuha was formed the very 15th day, the next day after Jayadratha was slain. (Image Source)
The Padma Vyuha is often confused with the Chakravyuha, as many writers use these terms interchangeably. There is a considerable difference between these 2 formations though there are quite some similarities as well. Similar to Chakra-Vyuha, this is a multi-tiered defensive formation in the form of a blooming lotus when viewed from above. Again only a handful of warriors knew the technique of breaching this formation.
Thanks to Abhik Mukherjee for his contribution on this blog, most of the content here is from his quora answer https://www.quora.com/What-was-the-physics-behind-Chakravyuha-in-the-Mahabharata-and-how-was-this-beaten ; his profile : https://www.quora.com/profile/Abhik-Mukherjee-32 . Do read his answer to know more.