c. 1700 watercolour from Mewar depicts the Pandava and Kaurava armies arrayed against each other.
|Territory-less Pandavas of the Kurus with the support of the mighty Panchala tribe and others.||Kauravas (Kuru tribe) with capital at Hastinapura and their allies|
|Commanders and leaders|
Dhrishtadyumna (day 1-18) †
Bhishma (day 1-10) †
Drona (day 11-15) †
Karna (day 16-17) †
Shalya (day 18) †
Ashwatthama (night raid)
7 Akshauhinis |
153,090 chariots and chariot-riders
153,090 elephants and elephant-riders
459,270 horses and horse-riders
(total 1,530,900 soldiers)
11 Akshauhinis |
240,570 chariots and chariot-riders
240,570 elephants and elephant-riders
721,710 horses and horse-riders
(total 2,405,700 soldiers)
|Casualties and losses|
Almost total (1,530,900 soldiers)
Almost total (2,405,700 soldiers)
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The Kurukshetra War, also called the Mahabharata War, is a war described in the Indian epic Mahabharata. The conflict arose from a dynastic succession struggle between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for the throne of Hastinapura in an Indian kingdom called Kuru. It involved a number of ancient kingdoms participating as allies of the rival groups.
The location of the battle is described as having occurred in Kurukshetra in the modern state of Haryana. Despite only referring to these eighteen days, the war narrative forms more than a quarter of the book, suggesting its relative importance within the epic, which overall spans decades of the warring families. The narrative describes individual battles and deaths of various heroes of both sides, military formations, war diplomacy, meetings and discussions among the characters, and the weapons used. The chapters (parvas) dealing with the war (from chapter six to ten) are considered amongst the oldest in the entire Mahabharata.
The historicity of the war remains subject to scholarly discussions. Attempts have been made to assign a historical date to the Kurukshetra War. Popular tradition holds that the war marks the transition to Kaliyuga and thus dates it to 3102 BCE.
Mahabharata, one of the most important Hindu epics, is an account of the life and deeds of several generations of a ruling dynasty called the Kuru clan. Central to the epic is an account of a war that took place between two rival families belonging to this clan. Kurukshetra (literally "field of the Kurus"), was the battleground on which this war, known as the Kurukshetra War, was fought. Kurukshetra was also known as "Dharmakshetra" (the "field of Dharma"), or field of righteousness. Mahabharata tells that this site was chosen for the war because a sin committed on this land was forgiven on account of the sanctity of this land.
The Kuru territories were divided into two and were ruled by Dhritarashtra (with his capital at Hastinapura) and Yudhishthira of the Pandavas(with his capital at Indraprastha). The immediate dispute between the Kauravas(sons of Dhritarashtra) and the Pandavas arose from a game of dice, which Duryodhana won by deceit, forcing their Pandava cousins to transfer their entire territories to the Kauravas (to Hastinapura) and to "go into exile" for thirteen years. The dispute escalated into a full-scale war when Duryodhana, driven by jealousy, refused to restore the Pandavas their territories after the exile as earlier decided, as Duryodhana objected that they were discovered while in exile, and that no return of their kingdom was agreed upon.
Historicity and dating
Swaraj Prakash Gupta and K.S. Ramachandran state that the
Divergence of views regarding the Mahabharata war is due to the absence of reliable history of the ancient period. This is also true of the historical period, where also there is no unanimity of opinion on innumerable issues. Dr Mirashi accepts that there has been interpolation in the Mahabharata and observes that, 'Originally it (Mahabharata) was a small poem of 8,800 verses and was known by the name Jaya (victory), then it swelled to 24,000 verses and became known as Bharata, and, finally, it reached the present stupendous size of the one lakh verses, passing under the name Mahabharata.'
The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is subject to scholarly discussion and dispute. The existing text of the Mahabharata went through many layers of development, and mostly belongs to the period between c. 500 BCE and 400 CE. Within the frame story of the Mahabharata, the historical kings Parikshit and Janamejaya are featured significantly as scions of the Kuru clan, and Michael Witzel concludes that the general setting of the epic has a historical precedent in Iron Age (Vedic) India, where the Kuru kingdom was the center of political power during roughly 1200 to 800 BCE. According to Professor Alf Hiltebeitel, the Mahabharata is essentially mythological. Indian historian Upinder Singh has written that:
Whether a bitter war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas ever happened cannot be proved or disproved. It is possible that there was a small-scale conflict, transformed into a gigantic epic war by bards and poets. Some historians and archaeologists have argued that this conflict may have occurred in about 1000 BCE."
Despite the inconclusiveness of the data, attempts have been made to assign a historical date to the Kurukshetra War. Popular tradition holds that the war marks the transition to Kaliyuga and thus dates it to 3102 BCE. A number of other proposals have been put forward:
- P. V. Vartak calculates a date of October 16, 5561 BCE using planetary positions.
- P. V. Holey states a date of 13 November 3143 BCE using planetary positions and calendar systems.
- K. Sadananda, based on translation work, states that the Kurukshetra War started on November 22, 3067 BCE.
- B. N. Achar used planetarium software to argue that the Mahabharata War took place in 3067 BCE.
- S. Balakrishna concluded a date of 2559 BCE using consecutive lunar eclipses.
- R. N. Iyengar concluded a date of 1478 BCE using double eclipses and Saturn+Jupiter conjunctions.
- P. R. Sarkar estimates a date of 1298 BCE for the war of Kurukshetra.
- V. S. Dubey claims that the war happened near 950 BCE
Though the Kurukshetra War is not mentioned in Vedic literature, its prominence in later literature led A. L. Basham, writing in 1954, to conclude that there was a great battle at Kurukshetra which, "magnified to titanic proportions, formed the basis of the story of the greatest of India's epics, the Mahabharata." Acknowledging that later "generations looked upon it as marking an end of an epoch" he suggested that rather than being a civil war it might have been "a muddled recollection of the conquest of the Kurus by a tribe of Mongol type from the hills." He saw it as useless to the historian and dates the war to the 9th century BCE based on archaeological evidence and "some evidence in the Brahmana literature itself to show that it cannot have been much earlier."
According to Asko Parpola, the war may have taken place during the later phase of the Painted Grey Ware, circa 75-350 BCE. Parpola also notes that the Pandava heroes are not being mentioned in the Vedic literature from before the Grhyasutras. Parpola suggests that the Pandavas were Iranian migrants, who came to south Asia around 800 BCE.
Puranic literature presents genealogical lists associated with the Mahabharata narrative. The evidence of the Puranas is of two kinds. Of the first kind, there is the direct statement that there were 1015 (or 1050) years between the birth of Parikshit (Arjun's grandson) and the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, commonly dated to 382 BCE, which would yield an estimate of about 1400 BCE for the Bharata battle. However, this would imply improbably long reigns on average for the kings listed in the genealogies.
Of the second kind are analyses of parallel genealogies in the Puranas between the times of Adhisimakrishna (Parikshit's great-grandson) and Mahapadma Nanda. Pargiter accordingly estimated 26 generations by averaging 10 different dynastic lists and assuming 18 years for the average duration of a reign, arrived at an estimate of 850 BCE for Adhisimakrishna and thus approximately 950 BCE for the Bharata battle.
B. B. Lal used the same approach with a more conservative assumption of the average reign to estimate a date of 836 BCE and correlated this with archaeological evidence from Painted Grey Ware sites, the association being strong between PGW artifacts and places mentioned in the epic.
Jaya, the core of Mahabharata, is structured in the form of a dialogue between Kuru king Dhritarashtra (born blind) and Sanjaya, his advisor and chariot driver. Sanjaya narrates each incident of the Kurukshetra War, fought in 18 days, as and when it happened. Dhritarashtra sometimes asks questions and doubts and sometimes laments, knowing about the destruction caused by the war, to his sons, friends and kinsmen. He also feels guilty, due to his own role that led to this war, destructive to the entire Indian subcontinent.
Some 18 chapters of Vyasa's Jaya constitutes the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred texts of the Hindus. Thus, this work of Vyasa, called Jaya, deals with diverse subjects like geography, history, warfare, religion and morality. According to Mahabharata itself, the Jaya was recited to the King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna, by Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vyasa (then called the Bharata). The recitation of Vaisampayana to Janamejaya was then recited again by a professional storyteller named Ugrasrava Sauti, many years later, to an assemblage of sages performing the 12-year-long sacrifice for King Saunaka Kulapati in the Naimisha forest (then called the Mahabharata).
Mahabharata account of the war
In the beginning, Sanjaya gives a description of the various continents of the Earth, the other planets, and focuses on the Indian Subcontinent, then gives an elaborate list of hundreds of kingdoms, tribes, provinces, cities, towns, villages, rivers, mountains, forests etc. of the (ancient) Indian Subcontinent (Bharata Varsha). He also explains about the military formations adopted by each side on each day, the death of each hero and the details of each war-racing.
Krishna's Peace Mission
As a last attempt at peace is called for in Rajadharma, Krishna, the chieftain of the Yadavas, lord of the kingdom of Dwaraka, travelled to the kingdom of Hastinapur to persuade the Kauravas to see reason, avoid bloodshed of their own kin, and to embark upon a peaceful path with him as the "Divine" ambassador of the Pandavas. Duryodhana was insulted that Krishna had turned down his invitation to accommodate himself in the royal palace. Determined to stop & hinder the peace mission & adamant of going to war with the Pandavas, Duryodhana plotted to arrest Krishna, and insult, humiliate,and defame him in front of the entire royal court of Hastinapura as a challenge to prestige of the Pandavas and declaration of an act of open war.
At the formal presentation of the peace proposal by Krishna in the Kuru Mahasabha, at the court of Hastinapur, Krishna asked Duryodhana to return Indraprastha to the Pandavas and restore the status quo; or, if not, give over at least five villages, one for each of the Pandavas. Duryodhana said he would not give land even as much as tip of a needle to the Pandavas. Krishna's peace proposals were ignored & dismissed, and Duryodhana publicly ordered his soldiers, even after the warnings from all the elders, to arrest Krishna. Krishna laughed and displayed his divine form, radiating intense light.Lord Krishna cursed Duryodhana that his downfall was certain at the hands of the one who was sworn to tear off his thigh, to the shock of the blind king, who tried to pacify the Lord with as words to calm as he could find. His peace mission utterly insulted by Duryodhana, Krishna returned to the Pandava camp at Upaplavya to inform the Pandavas that the only course left to uphold the principles of virtue and righteousness was inevitable - war. During the course of his return, Krishna met Karna, Kunti's firstborn(before Yudhishthira) and requested him to help his brothers & fight on the side of dharma. However, being helped by Duryodhana, Karna said to Krishna that he would battle against Pandavas as he had a debt to pay.
Krishna had a large force called the Narayani Sena and was himself a great warrior. Duryodhana and Arjuna thus both went to Krishna at Dwarka to ask for his help. Duryodhana arrived first and found Krishna asleep. Being arrogant and viewing himself as equal to Krishna, Duryodhana chose a seat at Krishna's head and waited for him to rouse. Arjuna arrived later and being a humble devotee of Krishna, chose to sit and wait at Krishna's feet. When Krishna woke up, he saw Arjuna first and gave him the first right to make his request. Krishna told Arjuna and Duryodhana that he would give the Narayani Sena, to one side and himself as a non-combatant to the other. Since Arjuna was given the first opportunity to choose, Duryodhana was worried that Arjuna would choose the mighty army of Krishna. When given the choice of either Krishna's army or Krishna himself on their side, Arjuna on behalf of the Pandavas chose Krishna, unarmed on his own, relieving Duryodhana, who thought Arjuna to be the greatest fool. Later Arjuna requested Krishna to be his charioteer and Krishna, being an intimate friend of Arjuna, agreed wholeheartedly and hence received the name Parthasarthy, or 'charioteer of the son of Pritha'. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna returned satisfied.
While camping at a place called Upaplavya, in the territory of Virata, the Pandavas gathered their armies. Contingents arrived from all parts of the country and soon the Pandavas had a large force of seven divisions. The Kauravas managed to raise an even larger army of eleven divisions. Many kingdoms of ancient India such as Dwaraka, Kasi, Kekaya, Magadha, Chedi, Matsya, Pandya, and the Yadus of Mathura were allied with the Pandavas; while the allies of the Kauravas comprised the kings of Pragjyotisha, Kalinga, Anga, Kekaya, Sindhudesa, Avanti in Madhyadesa, Gandharas, Bahlikas, Mahishmati, Kambojas (with the Yavanas, Sakas, Trilinga, Tusharas) and many others.
Seeing that there was now no hope for peace, Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, asked his brothers to organize their army. The Pandavas accumulated seven Akshauhinis army with the help of their allies. Each of these divisions were led by Drupada, Virata, Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Satyaki, Chekitana and Bhima. After consulting his commanders, the Pandavas appointed Dhrishtadyumna as the supreme commander of the Pandava army. Mahabharata says that kingdoms from all over ancient India supplied troops or provided logistic support on the Pandava side. Some of these were: Kekaya, Pandya, Cholas, Magadha, and many more.
The Kaurava army consisted of 11 Akshauhinis. Duryodhana requested Bhishma to command the Kaurava army. Bhishma accepted on the condition that, while he would fight the battle sincerely, he would not harm the five Pandava brothers. In addition, Bhishma said that Karna would not fight under him as long as he is in the battlefield. Having little choice, Duryodhana agreed to Bhishma's conditions and made him the supreme commander of the Kaurava army, while Karna was debarred from fighting. But Karna enters the war later when Bhishma is wounded by Arjuna. Apart from the one hundred Kaurava brothers, headed by Duryodhana himself and his brother Dushasana, the Kauravas were assisted on the battlefield by Drona and his son Ashwatthama, the Kaurava's brother-in-law Jayadratha, the Brahmin Kripa, Kritavarma, Shalya, Sudakshina, Bhurishravas, Bahlika, Shakuni and many more who were bound by their loyalty towards either Hastinapura or Dhritarashtra.
The kingdom of Vidarbha, with its King Rukmi, Vidura, the ex-prime minister of Hastinapur and younger brother to Dhritarashtra, and Balarama were the only neutrals in this war. Rukmi wanted to join the war, but Duryodhana and Arjuna refused to allow him, because he boasted about his war strength and army. Vidura did not want to see the bloodshed of the war, although he was a good battle strategist. The powerful Balarama refused to fight at Kurukshetra, because he was Duryodhana's coach and his brother Krishna is on the other side.
Army Divisions & Weaponry
The combined number of warriors and soldiers in both armies was approximately 3.94 million. Each Akshauhini was under a commander or a general, apart from the Commander in chief or the generalissimo who was the head of the entire army.
During the Kurukshetra War, the weapons used included: the bow, the weapon of choice for Arjuna, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Satyaki, Vikarna and Abhimanyu; the mace, chosen by Bhima and Duryodhana, the spear, chosen by Yudhishthira; the sword chosen by Nakula, Dushasana, Dhrishtadyumna and other Kauravas; and the axe chosen by Sahadeva.
At various times during battle, the supreme commander of either army ordered special formations (vyuhas). Each formation had a specific purpose; some were defensive while others were offensive. Each formation had its specific strengths and weaknesses. The Mahābhārata lists the following:
- Krauncha vyuha (heron formation)
- Makara vyuha (crocodile formation)
- Kurma vyuha (tortoise or turtle formation)
- Trishula vyuha (trident formation)
- Chakrvyuha (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)
They may be arrangements of warriors in field which bear resemblance to animals, or they may be names given to battle strategies.
Rules of Engagement
The two supreme commanders met and framed "rules of ethical conduct", dharmayuddha, for the war. The rules included:
- Fighting must begin no earlier than sunrise and end exactly at sunset.
- No more than one warriors may attack a single warrior.
- Two warriors may "duel", or engage in prolonged personal combat, only if they carry the same weapons and they are on the same type of mount (on foot, on a horse, on an elephant, or in a chariot).
- No warrior may kill or injure a warrior who has surrendered.
- One who surrenders becomes a prisoner of war and will then be subject to the protections of a prisoner of war.
- No warrior may kill or injure an unarmed warrior.
- No warrior may kill or injure an unconscious warrior.
- No warrior may kill or injure a person or animal not taking part in the war.
- No warrior may kill or injure a warrior whose back is turned away.
- No warrior may attack a woman.
- No warrior may strike an animal not considered a direct threat.
- The rules specific to each weapon must be followed. For example, it is prohibited to strike below the waist in mace warfare.
- Warriors may not engage in any unfair warfare.
Course of war
Before the Battle
It was observed that the year in which the Mahabharata War took place, the year had three solar eclipses on earth in a span of thirty days. Eclipses are considered ill for life on earth according to Hindu astrology.
On the first day of the war, as would be on all the following days, the Kaurava army stood facing west and the Pandava army stood facing east. The Kaurava army was formed such that it faced all sides: elephants formed its body; the kings, its head; and the steeds, its wings. Bhishma, in consultation with his commanders Drona, Bahlika and Kripa, remained in the rear.
The Pandava army was organised by Yudhishthira and Arjuna in the Vajra formation. Because the Pandava army was smaller than the Kaurava's, they decided to employ the tactic of each warrior engaging as many enemies as possible. This involved an element of surprise, with the bowmen showering arrows hiding behind the frontal attackers. The attackers in the front were equipped with short-range weapons like maces, battle-axes, swords and lances.
Ten divisions (Akshauhinis) of the Kaurava army were arranged in a formidable phalanx. The eleventh was put under the immediate command of Bhishma, partly to protect him. The safety of the supreme commander Bhishma was central to Duryodhana's strategy, as he had placed all his hope on the great warrior's abilities. Dushasana, the younger brother of Duryodhana, was the military officer in-charge of Bhishma's protection.
The Bhagavad Gita
When the war was declared and the two armies were facing each other, Arjuna realized that he would have to kill his dear great-granduncle (Bhishma), on whose lap he had played as a child and his respected teacher (Drona), who had held his hand and taught him how to hold the bow and arrow, making him the greatest archer in the world. Arjuna felt weak and sickened at the prospect of killing his entire family, including his 100 cousins and friends such as Ashwatthama. Despondent and confused about what is right and what is wrong, Arjuna turned to Krishna for divine advice and teachings. Krishna, who Arjuna chose as his charioteer, advised him of his duty. This conversation forms the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most respected religious and philosophical texts in the Hindu religion. Krishna instructs Arjuna not to yield to degrading impotence and to fight his kin, for that was the only way to righteousness. He also reminded him that this was a war between righteousness and unrighteousness (dharma and adharma) and it was Arjuna's duty to slay anyone who supported the cause of unrighteousness, or sin. Krishna then revealed his divine form and explained that he is born on earth in each aeon when evil raises its head. It also forms one of the foremost treatise on the several aspects of Yoga and mystical knowledge.
Before the battle began, Yudhishthira did something unexpected. He suddenly dropped his weapons, took off his armour and started walking towards the Kaurava army with folded hands in prayer. The Pandava brothers and the Kauravas looked on in disbelief, thinking Yudhishthira was surrendering before the first arrow was shot. Yudhishthira's purpose became clear, however, when he fell on Bhishma's feet to seek his blessing for success in battle. Bhishma, grandfather to both the Pandavas and Kauravas, blessed Yudhishthira. Yudhishthira returned to his chariot and the battle was ready to commence.
When the battle was commenced, Bhishma went through the Pandava army wreaking havoc wherever he went but Abhimanyu, Arjuna's son, seeing this went straight at Bhishma, defeated his bodyguards and directly attacked the commander of the Kaurava forces. The Pandavas suffered numerous losses and were defeated at the end of the first day. Virata's sons, Uttara and Sweta, were slain by Shalya and Bhishma. Krishna consoled the distraught Yudhishthira saying that eventually victory would be his.
The second day of the war commenced with a confident Kaurava army facing the Pandavas. Arjuna, realising that something needed to be done quickly to reverse the Pandava losses, decided that he must try to kill Bhishma. Krishna skillfully located Bhishma's chariot and steered Arjuna toward him. Arjuna tried to engage Bhishma in a duel, but the Kaurava soldiers placed around Bhishma to protect him attacked Arjuna to try to prevent him from directly engaging Bhishma. Arjuna and Bhishma fought a fierce battle that raged for hours. Drona and Dhrishtadyumna similarly engaged in a duel during which Drona broke Dhrishtadyumna's bow numerous times. Bhima intervened and rescued Dhrishtadyumna. Duryodhana sent the Kalinga forces to attack Bhima and most of them lost their lives at his hands. Bhishma immediately came to relieve the battered Kalinga forces. Satyaki, who was assisting Bhima, shot at Bhishma's charioteer and killed him. Bhishma's horses, with no one to control them, bolted carrying Bhishma away from the battlefield. The Kaurava army had suffered great losses at the end of the second day.
On the third day, Bhishma arranged the Kaurava forces in the formation of an eagle with himself leading from the front, while Duryodhana's forces protected the rear. Bhishma wanted to be sure of avoiding any mishap. The Pandavas countered this by using the crescent formation with Bhima and Arjuna at the head of the right and the left horns, respectively. The Kauravas concentrated their attack on Arjuna's position. Arjuna's chariot was soon covered with arrows and javelins. Arjuna, with amazing skill, built a fortification around his chariot with an unending stream of arrows from his bow. Abhimanyu and Satyaki combined to defeat the Gandhara forces of Shakuni. Bhima and his son Ghatotkacha attacked Duryodhana in the rear. Bhima's arrows hit Duryodhana, who swooned in his chariot. His charioteer immediately drove them out of danger. Duryodhana's forces, however, saw their leader fleeing the battlefield and soon scattered. Bhishma soon restored order and Duryodhana returned to lead the army. He was angry at Bhishma, however, at what he saw as leniency towards the five Pandava brothers and spoke harshly at his commander. Bhishma, stung by this unfair charge, fell on the Pandava army with renewed vigor. It was as if there were more than one Bhishma on the field.
Arjuna attacked Bhishma trying to restore order. Arjuna and Bhishma again engaged in a fierce duel, however Arjuna's heart was not in the battle as he did not like the idea of attacking his grand-uncle. During the battle, Bhishma killed numerous soldiers of Arjuna's armies.
The fourth-day of the battle was noted for the valour shown by Bhima. Bhishma commanded the Kaurava army to move on the offensive from the outset. While Abhimanyu was still in his mother's womb, Arjuna had taught Abhimanyu on how to break and enter the chakra vyuha. But, before explaining how to exit the chakra Vyuha, Arjuna was interrupted by Krishna (other story: Abhimanyu's mother falls asleep while Arjuna was explaining her). Thus from birth, Abhimanyu only knew how to enter the Chakra vyuha but didn't know how to come out of it. When the Kauravas formed the chakravyuha, Abhimanyu entered it but was surrounded and attacked by a number of Kaurava princes. Arjuna joined the fray in aid of Abhimanyu. Bhima appeared on the scene with his mace aloft and started attacking the Kauravas. Duryodhana sent a huge force of elephants at Bhima. When Bhima saw the mass of elephants approaching, he got down from his chariot and attacked them single handedly with his iron mace. They scattered and stampeded into the Kaurava forces killing many. Duryodhana ordered an all-out attack on Bhima. Bhima withstood all that was thrown at him and attacked Duryodhana's brothers, killing eight of them. Bhima was soon struck by an arrow on the chest and sat down in his chariot dazed.
Duryodhana was distraught at the loss of his brothers. Duryodhana, overwhelmed by sorrow at the loss of his brothers, went to Bhishma at the end of the fourth day of the battle and asked his commander how could the Pandavas, facing a superior force against them, still prevail and win. Bhishma replied that the Pandavas had justice on their side and advised Duryodhana to seek peace.
When the battle resumed on the fifth day, the slaughter continued. The Pandava army again suffered against Bhishma's attacks. Satyaki bore the brunt of Drona's attacks and soon could not withstand them. Bhima drove by and rescued Satyaki. Arjuna fought and killed thousands of soldiers sent by Duryodhana to attack him. The unimaginable carnage continued during the ensuing days of the battle.
The sixth day was marked by a prodigious slaughter. Drona caused immeasurable loss of life on the Pandava side. The formations of both the armies were broken. On day 7 Drona slays Shankya, son of Virata. On the eighth day Bhima killed eight of Dhritarashtra's sons. Iravan, the son of Arjuna and Ulupi kills 5 brothers of Shakuni/princes of Gandhara. Duryodhana sends Alamvush to kill Iravan and the latter is killed by the rakshasa after a brave fight.
On the ninth day Krishna, overwhelmed by anger at the apparent inability of Arjuna to defeat Bhishma, rushed towards the Kaurava commander, the wheel of a fallen chariot in his hands. Bhishma lays down his arms and is ready to die at the hands of the Lord, but Arjuna stops him, reminding of his promise not to wield a weapon. Realizing that the war could not be won as long as Bhishma was standing, Krishna suggested the strategy of placing a eunuch in the field to face him. Some sources however state that it was Yudhishthira who visits Bhishma's camp at night asking him for help. To this Bhishma says that he would not fight a eunuch.
On the tenth day, the Pandavas, unable to withstand Bhishma's prowess, decided to put Shikhandi, who had been a woman in a prior life in front of Bhishma, as Bhishma has taken a vow not to attack a woman. Shikhandi's arrows fell on Bhishma without hindrance. Arjuna positioned himself behind Shikhandi, protecting himself from Bhishma's attack and aimed his arrows at the weak points in Bhishma's armour. Soon, with arrows sticking from every part of his body, the great warrior fell from his chariot. His body did not touch the ground as it was held aloft by the arrows protruding from his body.
The Kauravas and Pandavas gathered around Bhishma and at his request, Arjuna placed three arrows under Bhishma's head to support it. Bhishma had promised his father, King Shantanu, that he would live until Hastinapur were secured from all directions. To keep this promise, Bhishma used the boon of "Ichcha Mrityu"(self wished death) given to him by his father. After the war was over, when Hastinapur had become safe from all sides and after giving lessons on politics and Vishnu Sahasranama to the Pandavas, Bhishma died on the first day of Uttarayana.
Bhishma had been protecting all 100 kauravas for the last 10 days, from all dangers and especially from Bheema. But now Bheema had a clear field. With Bhishma unable to continue, Karna entered the battlefield, much to Duryodhana's joy. He made Drona the supreme commander of the Kaurava forces. Karna and Duryodhana wanted to capture Yudhishthira alive. Killing Yudhishthira in battle would only enrage the Pandavas more, whereas holding him as hostage would be strategically useful. Drona formulated his battle plans for the eleventh day to this aim. He cut down Yudhishthira's bow and the Pandava army feared that their leader would be taken prisoner. Arjuna rushed to the scene, however and with a flood of arrows made Drona retreat.
With his attempts to capture Yudhishthira thwarted, Drona confided to Duryodhana that it would be difficult as long as Arjuna was around. He summoned King Bhagadatta, the monarch of Pragjyotisha(modern day Assam, India). Bhagadatta had thousands of gigantic elephants in his stable and was considered the strongest warrior on this planet in elephant warfare. Bhagadatta attacked Arjuna with his gigantic elephant named Suprateeka. It was a fierce battle in which Bhagadatta matched Arjuna astra for astra. Drona continued to try and capture Yudhishthira. The Pandavas however fought hard and delivered severe blows to the Kaurava army.
The King of Trigartadesa, Susharma along with his 3 brothers who were fighting on the Kaurava side made a pact that they would make sure that Arjuna comes and doesn't break the Chakra Vuyh and kill him or die. They went into the battlefield on the twelfth day and challenged Arjuna. Arjuna gave them a fierce fight in which the brothers fell dead after fighting a brave fight. Drona continued to try and capture Yudhishthira.
On the other side of the battlefield, the remaining four Pandavas and their allies were finding it impossible to break Dronacharya's "Chakra Vyuh" formation. As Arjuna was busy fighting with the Trigartadesa princes and the Prajayogastha monarch on the other side of the battlefield, he could not be summoned to break the Chakra Vyuha formation, which could only be broken by entering and exiting the formation. Yudhishthira instructed, Abhimanyu, one of Arjuna's sons to break the Chakra vyuha formation. Abhimanyu knew the secret of entering the Chakra vyuh formation, but did not know how to exit it. As soon as abhimanyu entered the formation, King Jayadrata stopped all the pandava forces from entering. He had got a boon from shiva, to defeat any number of warriors for one particular day in the war, except for Arjuna, who was away then. Abhimanyu slew tens of thousands of warriors. Some of them included Vrihadvala, the ruler of Kosala, the ruler of Kratha, the ruler of Assaka, Martikavat prince of Bhojas, Shalya's son Rukmartha, Shalya's younger brother and so many others. He also killed Duryodhana's son. Duryodhana got enraged and ordered Durmashana, who was Dushasana's son to attack Abhimanyu but he died under the hands of Abhimanyu. Next he ordered his men to attack Abhimanyu all at once. Abhimanyu fought but was surrounded and attacked by many warriors in a combined attack. Abhimanyu lost his chariot, horses, bow, sword and at last his shield. He was shot with multiple arrows from all sides. Upon learning of the death of his son, Arjuna vowed to kill Jayadratha on the morrow before the battle ended at sunset, otherwise he would throw himself into the fire.
While searching for Jayadrath on the battlefield, Arjuna slew an akshauhini (battle formation that consisted of 21,870 chariots (Sanskrit ratha); 21,870 elephants; 65,610 cavalry and 109,350 infantry) of Kaurav soldiers. The Shakatavuyha Kaurav army tightly protected Jayadratha, however, preventing Arjuna from attacking him. Finally, in late afternoon, Arjuna found Jayadratha guarded by the mighty Kaurav army. Seeing his friend's plight, Lord Krishna raised his Sudarshan Chakra to cover the sun, faking a sunset. Arjun fought a powerful battle with Jayadrath and finally defeated him. Then, Arjuna shot a powerful arrow decapitating Jayadrath. While Arjuna destroying the rest of the Shakatavuyha, Vikarna, the third eldest Kaurava, challenged Arjuna to an archery fight. Arjuna asks Bhima to decimate Vikarna, but Bhima refused to, because Vikarna defended the Pandavas during the Draupadi Vastrapaharanam. Bhima and Vikarna showered arrows at each other. Later Bhima throws his mace at Vikarna, killing him. The muscular Pandava was devastated and mourned his death saying he was a man of Dharma and it was a pity how he lived his life. Drona kills Vrihatkshatra, the ruler of Kekaya and Dhrishtakethu, the ruler of Chedi.
The battle continued past sunset. When the bright moon rose, Ghatotkacha, the son of Bhima slaughtered numerous warriors, attacking while flying in the air. Karna stood against him and both fought fiercely until Karna released the Shakti, a divine weapon given to him by Indra. Ghatotkacha increased his size and fell dead on the Kaurav army killing an akshouhini of them.
After King Drupada and King Virata were slain by Drona, Bhima and Dhrishtadyumna fought him on the fifteenth day. Because Drona was very powerful and inconquerable having the irresistible Brahmanda astra, Krishna hinted to Yudhishthira that Drona would give up his arms if his son Ashwatthama was dead. Bhima proceeded to kill an elephant named Ashwatthama and loudly proclaimed that Ashwatthama was dead. Drona approached Yudhishthira to seek the truth of his son's death. Yudhishthira proclaimed Ashwathama Hatahath, Naro Va Kunjaro Va, implying Ashwathama had died but he was nor sure whether it was a Drona's son or an elephant, The latter part of his proclamation (Naro va Kunjaro va) were drowned out by sound of the conch blown by Krishna intentionally (a different version of the story is that Yudhishthira pronounced the last words so feebly that Drona could not hear the word elephant). Prior to this incident, the chariot of Yudhishthira, proclaimed as Dharma raja (King of righteousness), hovered a few inches off the ground. After the event, the chariot landed on the ground as he lied.
Drona was disheartened, and laid down his weapons. He was then killed by Dhrishtadyumna to avenge his father's death and satisfy his vow. Later, the Pandava's mother Kunti secretly met her abandoned son Karna and requested him to spare the Pandavas, as they were his younger brothers. Karna promised Kunti that he would spare them except for Arjuna, but also added that he would not fire a same weapon against Arjun twice.
On the sixteenth day, Karna was made the supreme commander of the Kuru army. Karna fought valiantly but was surrounded and attacked by Pandava generals, who were unable to prevail upon him. Karna inflicted heavy damage on the Pandava army, which fled. Then Arjuna successfully resisted Karna's weapons with his own and also inflicted casualties upon the Kaurava army. The sun soon set and with darkness and dust making the assessment of proceedings difficult, the Kaurava army retreated for the day.
On the same day, Bhima swung his mace and shattered Dushasana's chariot. Bhima seized Dushasana, ripped his right hand from shoulder and killed him, tearing open his chest and drinking his blood and carrying some to smear on Draupadi's untied hair, thus fulfilling his vow made when Draupadi was humiliated.
On the seventeenth day, Karna defeated the Pandava brothers Nakula, Bhima, Sahadeva and Yudhishthira in battle but spared their lives. Later, Karna resumed duelling with Arjuna. During their duel, Karna's chariot wheel got stuck in the mud and Karna asked for a pause. Krishna reminded Arjuna about Karna's ruthlessness unto Abhimanyu while he was similarly left without chariot and weapons. Hearing his son's fate, Arjuna shot his arrow and decapitated Karna. Before the battle, Karna's sacred armour ('Kavacha') and earrings ('Kundala') were taken as alms by Lord Indra when asked for, which resulted in his death by Arjuna's arrows.
On the 18th day, Shalya took over as the commander-in-chief of the remaining Kaurava forces. Yudhishthira killed king Shalya in a spear combat and Sahadeva killed Shakuni. Realizing that he had been defeated, Duryodhana fled the battlefield and took refuge in the lake, where the Pandavas caught up with him. Under the supervision of the now returned Balarama, a mace battle took place between Bhima and Duryodhana. Bhima flouted the rules (under instructions from Krishna) to strike Duryodhana beneath the waist in which he was mortally wounded.
Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, and Kritavarma met Duryodhana at his deathbed and promised to avenge the actions of Bhima. They attacked the Pandavas' camp later that night and killed all the Pandavas' remaining army including their children. Amongst the dead were Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi and children of Draupadi. Other than the Pandavas and Krishna, only Satyaki and Yuyutsu survived.
At the end of the 18th day, only twelve major warriors survived the war—the five Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki, Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, Yuyutsu, Vrishakethu, and Kritvarma. Yudhishthira was crowned king of Hastinapur. After ruling for 36 years, he renounced the throne, passing the title on to Arjuna's grandson, Parikshit. He then left for the Himalayas with Draupadi and his brothers. Draupadi and four Pandavas—Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva died during the journey. Yudhishthira, the lone survivor and being of pious heart, was invited by Dharma to enter the heavens as a mortal.
- In discussing the dating question, historian A. L. Basham says: "According to the most popular later tradition the Mahabharata War took place in 3102 BCE, which in the light of all evidence, is quite impossible. More reasonable is another tradition, placing it in the 15th century BCE, but this is also several centuries too early in the light of our archaeological knowledge. Probably the war took place around the beginning of the 9th century BCE; such a date seems to fit well with the scanty archaeological remains of the period, and there is some evidence in the Brahmana literature itself to show that it cannot have been much earlier." Basham cites H.C. Raychaudhuri, Political History of Ancient India, pp.27ff.
- Insoll, Timothy. Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion: The Proceedings of the Cambridge Conference. Archaeopress. p. 166.
- Swaraj Prakash Gupta; K.S. Ramachandran. "Mahabharata: Myth and Reality". In Singh. Delhi: Ancient History. Social Science Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-8187358299. Retrieved 5 August 2016.
- Singh, Upinder (2006). Delhi: Ancient History. Berghahn Books. p. 85.
- Singh 2009, p. 19.
- The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahabharata: The Massacre at Night. Oxford University Press. p. 13.
- Singh 2009, p. 18-21.
- Witzel 1995.
- Hiltebeitel 2005, p. 5594.
- Singh 2010, p. Chapter 7, Pp. 202-252, 302.
- "Experts dig up 950BC as epic war date". The Telegraph (Calcutta). February 1, 2015. Retrieved 2016-10-01.
- Basham 1954, p. 39-40.
- Basham 1954, p. 40.
- parpola 2015, p. 299.
- Parpola 2015, p. 299.
- Parpola 2015, p. 299-300.
- A.D. Pusalker, History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol I, Chapter XIV, p.273
- FE Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, p.180. He shows estimates of the average as 47, 50, 31 and 35 for various versions of the lists.
- Pargiter, op.cit. p.180-182
- B. B. Lal, Mahabharata and Archaeology in Gupta and Ramachandran (1976), p.57-58
- C. Rajagopalachari, Mahābhārata, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. 1994 pp 183
- Basham, A. L. (1954), The Wonder that was India: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent Before the Coming of the Muslims, ACLS Humanities E-Book, ISBN 978-1597405997
- Hiltebeitel, Alf (2005), "Mahabaratha", in Jones, Lindsay, MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religion, MacMillan
- Parpola, Asko (2015), The Roots of Hinduism. The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization, Oxford University Press
- Singh, Upinder (2009), History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Longman, ISBN 978-8131716779
- Singh, Bal Ram (2010), Origin of Indian civilization (First ed.), Dartmouth: Center for Indic Studies, University of Massachusetts and D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, ISBN 8124605602
- Witzel, Michael (1995), "Early Sanskritization: Origin and Development of the Kuru state" (PDF), EJVS, 1 (4), archived from the original (PDF) on 11 June 2007