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23 Ghatotkach and Abhimanyu

When one reads Mahabharata in its current form, it is always made amply clear that the Mahanayak - the supreme hero - of this epic is Lord Krishna. Although Krishna appears on the scene much later after the feud has happened, he is almost always at the center of the story - and as Krishna is the supreme hero, so is his greatest devotee and friend Partha Arjuna. So much so that Arjuna is considered to be the incarnation of Nara, the supreme Man, and Krisha is considered Narayana - the Supreme God (Vishnu).

Arjuna kills all the Maharathis (generals if you please) in the war --- Bhishma, Drona, Karna --- except the Kaurava brothers. The Kauravas --- all 100 of them, including Dussasana and the eldest Duryodhana --- are all killed single-handedly by - and this is where we come to the second greatest character - Bhima

Bhima is known for his prowess with his favorite weapon the mace (gada, in Sanskrit), just as Arjun is known for his archery. Bhima is as much responsible and central to all the events of the great epic as is Krishna. He saves his four brothers and mother Kunti from certain death in Lakshagriha. He kills Hidimb Rakshasa, and Bakasura at Ekchakra. The advice that Krishna gives Arjuna in the form of Gita is given to all Pandavas much earlier by Bhima - albeit in a shorter form.

Indeed, there is a school of thought that Bhima was the real Mahanayak of the epic earlier --- this theory is expanded in much greater detail by Dr. P. V. Vartak in his Marathi book 'Swayabhu' ("The Self-made").

Anyway, I do not wish to discuss who is greater - Bhima or Arjuna. Both are superb characters - Bhima with his weakness for food, and Arjuna with his weakness for women (and worldly desires). Both are great warriors, and both are a great source of inspiration - and of course, rumination. To us, that is what matters.

What I wish to discuss, in fact, is their respective prodigal sons - Ghatotkach and Abhimanyu - and the great similarity they share in life as well as death.

I mean, look at the two. Both are born to great fathers - Ghatotkach to Bhima, son of Vayu, and Abhimanyu to Arjuna, son of Indra. With that lineage, both are grandsons of Adityas (i.e. sons of Diti Aditi and Kashyap, son of Marichi, one of the Saptarshis) -- Typo on Aditi - identified by a reader. Thank you!

Although, both are sons born to Pandavas - Bhima and Arjuna - they are from their wives other than Draupadi. Ghatotkacha is born to Hidimba, the princess of Hidimbavana, while Abhimanyu is born to Subhadra, sister of Krishna and therefore princess of Dwaraka. Ghatotkach is the only son of Hidimba, so is Abhimanyu of Subhadra.

Both are born when their fathers were in exile / hiding.

The marriage of their respective parents is preceeded by some unpleasant event - like killing of Hidimb Rakshasa in case of Ghatotkach and Subhadra-harana (abduction - carrying away if you please - of Subhadra by Arjuna from Dwaraka) in case of Abhimanyu. 

Both these events have a potential of turning really ugly for the Pandavas - like sister Hidimba could have got furious and killed all the brothers as a revenge, and the Yadavas could have waged a war against Pandavas at Indraprastha, where Arjuna took Subhadra. However, both the events turn out to be good for the Pandavas - and end up in matrimony.

Both the children grow up away from their fathers, but near their mothers - Ghatotkach in Hidimbavana and Abhimanyu in Dwaraka. Both are taught warfare, but that must be true for all Kshatriya kids.

Both know Shastra (hand-weapons) as well as Astra (missiles and special weaponary) vidya. Moreover, Ghatotkach is known for his Maya vidya (illusions) - being a half-Rakshasa by birth. In fact, in Tamilnadu, there is a folklore about how Abhimanyu is also an incarnate demon from Ramayana age. That makes both of them half-Rakshasas.

Both are known for their prowess in their father's weapon more than their famous fathers - Ghatotkach was superior wielder of mace than Bhima and Abhimanyu was greater than Arjuna in archery.

Both fight the Great War on the side of their fathers - the Pandavas - and are legendary for their bravery and the havoc they created for the enemy side the Kauravas. Ghatotkach fights shoulder to shoulder with Dhrishtadyunma, Pandava's commander in chief, and is known to be one of the fiercest warriors on this side. Abhimanyu is so proficient in warfare than Kauravas think that there are not one, but two Arjunas - the first being the real Arjuna and the second being his great son who resembles his father in prowess and valor.

Both kill thousands and thousands of enemies, and overpower great warriors.

Both die tragic deaths in the Great War.

Both die on the battlefield within a span of a day - Abhimanyu first and then Ghatotkach. This is during the 13th and 14th day of the war.

Indeed, these two death are crucial, landmark, and cornerstones in the war, and ensure the victory of Pandavas.

Both are killed by means beyond their regular fighting abilities - Ghatotkach by a divine missile and Abhimanyu by the overpowering attack of six people together against one.

The death of Abhimanyu is much known and celebrated --- the way he takes charge of breaking on his own the Chakravyuha created by Drona when Arjuna is gone away to fight with the Samsaptaka army, how he breaks into the Vyuha, how the other Pandavas are stopped by the barely-known Jayadratha (or Saindhava) by a quirk boon given to him by Lord Shiva that he will be able to fight the four Pandavas (except Arjuna) for one day, how the Kaurava warriors crowd around him, how Karna breaks Abhimanyu's bow from behind, how he charges towards Drona with a chariot wheel --- the images of this battle form a poignant tale in itself, and Abhimanyu's name is considered synonymous with fearless bravery and valor.

Ghatotkach takes on him the great Shakti - a weapon given to Karna by Indra himself - and is killed. Radheya Karna has been saving this Shakti for Arjuna, but Ghatotkach is causing a havoc in the Kaurava army. Something is necessary to stop him and so Duryodhana asks Karna to use Shakti on Ghatotkach. When Karna, albeit reluctantly, uses his Shakti on Ghatotkach and he is killed, Krishna is known to utter under bated breath "the victory is ours for sure now".

Ghatotkach's death follows with father Bhima showering his wrath on the Kaurava army and especially the Kaurava brothers, while Abhimanyu's death forces father Arjuna to take the terrible oath of killing Jayadratha in a day or committing suicide.

Both these deaths happen during the Drona Parva - the five days where Drona becomes the commander of Duryodhana's army. This is also the turning point in the ways of the world - as the laws of Dharmayudha (like fighting with the opponent of same caliber, fighting with the same weapon, fighting only during the daytime, not using Astras against common population or those who have no countermeasures for them etc.) are all abandoned - and marks the beginning of Kali Yuga although nowadays people consider Kali Yuga to actually start from Krishna's death much later after the war was over.

In any case, coming back to Bhima and Arjuna, the current versions of Mahabharata give a far more elaborate emphasis on Abhimanyu's death as compared to Ghatotkach's death, which I think is an injustice. In fact, there is an overall tendency to show Ghatotkach as lesser than Abhimanyu, just as Bhima is usually depicted as a hero lesser than Arjuna.

There is also a story about how, much before the events in the Great War, Abhimanyu fights Ghatotkach once in Hidimbavan, and overpowers the Rakshasa although Ghatotkach is much elder to Abhimanyu. Only when Hidimba anxiously calls out Ghatotkach in despair as "Bhimsena's son", does Abhimanyu come to know who he is fighting against and stops. Later, when they recognize each other and are happy to find their relationship, Ghatotkach takes care of Abhimany and helps him marry Shashirekha, Balarama's daughter too.

However, the story looks like a major fabricated addition of later times - an effort to show how Abhimanyu was a greater warrior than Ghatotkach. The timelines don't match, the character of Ghatotkach is almost a caricature of what he is in the actual Mahabharata (also driven by the fact that he is a half-Rakshasa) and there is no further mention of Shashirekha in Mahabharat later. Abhimanyu is said to have married Uttara, daughter of king Virata and fathered Parikshit. So there are a lot of loose ends to this story, and I would like to leave it at that.

Whatever your viewpoint is, one thing is certain -- Ghatotkach and Abhimanyu - these two boys stand as pillars of invincible strength and great inspiration, and their glory seems unfaded, rather their names shine brighter as time goes by.

- S


The Mahabharata repeatedly describes Nara and Narayana as 2 ancient seers, not as the supreme man and the supreme creator. This occurs first in the "churning of the ocean" chapter in the Adi Parva where they rout the Asuras and keep amrita for the devas.
necro said…
Indeed this story is very inspiring .
i did visit ghatotkach temple in manali and also came to know that his avg height was around 160 arm lenghts or 60 meters
and he killed around 40 akshauhinee or 80 lakh soldiers in the battlefield himself
paramdham said…
the total strength of the two armies was said to be 11kaurav and 7 pandav=18
the ghatotkach-abhimanyu duo represented inflection points:: abhimanyu grandson of indra,nephew of mahavishnu and adisesha- was prevented by krishna[selfsame vishnu] from learning the withdrawal from padma/chakra vyuh=
killed by intervention of shiva thru saindhava
ghatotkacha,grandson of vaayu and shivaamsa thru aasuri/taamasa guna raakshasa,killed by daivaamsa surya's son,and indra-given- weapon=
(hari=hara abedha for loka kalyaana)
their deaths highlighted the prevalence of kali>> fighting bynight, slaying from behind,one against manysimultaneously.. throwing overboard agreed pr4inciples of warfare for somehow winning!!,killing saindhava is also a form of violation of the norms
kali pravesha could be said to have been when krishna leaped from the chariot to attack bheeshma in person
Yatin Diwakar said…
this is where you have made the diti = mother of devas mistake.
Pradeep, thank you for the comment. Yes in Mahabharata Nara and Narayana are depicted as two ancient seers. In fact, they are so ancient that Brahma gets confused as he finds them to be more ancient than him. He wonders - how come these two guys are older than me, when I am supposed to be the progenitor of everyone? Where did they come from?

Anyway, in Mahabharata and in Bhagvat Purana, these were two rishis who were very powerful, and would take turns for making tapa. By doing so, they attained great siddhis, so much so that even Shiva's weapons could not affect them. Later on they were reborn as Arjuna and Krishna.

Nara is sometimes translated as 'water'. Narayana is also an interesting word in Sanskrit. Etymologically, one way to look at it is 'born out of Nara" - Nara-ayan. So that would mean Nara and Narayana are co-dependent. Similar to the two birds from Mundaka Upanishad: "Two birds living together, each the friend of the other, perch upon the same tree. Of these two, one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, but the other simply looks on without eating."

The whole business about Nara and Narayana is quite obscure, partly due to the ancient texts, but also to an extent due to the advent of Advaitavad after Adi Sankaracharya. Here is my take on it: "So much so that Arjuna is considered to be the incarnation of Nara, the supreme Man, and Krisha is considered Narayana - the Supreme God (Vishnu)." - The Sanskrit Nara is sometimes translated as Human, and Narayana is an epithet of Vishnu. So one way of looking at Nara-Narayana is this duality between Man and his creator God. However, after the general acceptance of Advaitavad it was not easy to consider this philosophical position - so maybe the only interpretation that remained in Mahabharata is about the two seers.