Great wars and India
India has a long military history dating back several millennia. The first reference of armies is found in the Vedas. The epics Ramayana and Mahabaratha contain information on standing armies and warfare techniques like the Chakravyuha used in the Kurukshetra War. The epics contain information on the usage of chariots, war elephants and even flying machines in wars.
Dynasties in India
There were many powerful dynasties in India like the Magadha empire, Shishunaga dynasty, Nanda dynasty, Maurya Dynasty, Satavahana dynasty, Kushan empire, Gupta dynasty, Harsha’s empire, Pandiyan and Chola empire, Chera dynasty, the Pratiharas, the Palas, the Rashtrakutas, the Rajputs, the Yadavas, Vijayanagar empire, Chalukyas and Pallavas, Mughal Empire, Maratha Empire etc.
Time period – 18 days
Date – 5000 years ago
Place – Kurukshetra india
Mahābhārata states that the war lasted eighteen days during which vast armies from all over ancient India fought alongside the two rivals. The relative importance of this war is evident from the fact that while the duration of epic lasts spans centuries dealing with generations of the warring families, the war narrative forms more than a quarter of the book, yet deals with the events of a mere eighteen days.
The chapters (parvas) dealing with the war (from chapter six to ten).
Prelude to the war – Some important events
- The dispute between the Kauravas and the Pandavas arose out of a game of dice, which the Kauravas won by deceit, forcing their Pandava cousins to go into exile for thirteen years. The dispute escalated into a full scale war when Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, driven by jealousy, refused to restore the Pandavas to their throne after the exile.
- As a last attempt at peace, Krishna traveled to Hastinapur to persuade the Kauravas to embark upon a peaceful path with him. At Hastinapur, Krishna took his meals and stayed at the house of the Prime Minister, Vidura, who was a religious person and a devotee of Krishna. Duryodhana felt insulted that Krishna turned down his invitation to eat with him and stay in his royal palace. Determined to ensure that the peace mission failed, Duryodhana plotted to arrest Krishna.
Importance of Krishna
Krishna had one of the largest armies and was Himself a great warrior. Duryodhana and Arjuna thus both went to Krishna at Dwarka to ask for His help. This is a famous part of the story, especially dear to Krishna devotees. 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 His mighty Narayani sena, ‘opulent, Lordly army’ to one side, and Himself unarmed 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 Paarthasaarthy, or ‘charioteer of the son of Prithaa’. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna returned satisfied.
The two parties
Pandavas led by Dhristadyumna- the main warriors were Arjuna,Bhima,Yudhishthira,Nakula,Sahadeva,Ghatotkacha,Satyaki.
Army – 7 Akshauhinis comprising of 1,530,900 soldiers. primarily comprising of the Panchala and Matsya forces, the Rakshasa forces of Bhima’s son, and Vrishni-Yadava heroes.
Atirathis: Yudhisthira, Bhima, Dhristadyumna, Ghatotkacha, Satyaki
Commanders in Chief: Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya
Atirathis: Shalya, Somadatta, Bhurisrava, Bhagadatta, Jayadratha, Kritavarma
Maharathis: Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Ashwathama
An army of 11 Akshauhinis is formed by the kingdom of Hastinapura in alliance with races like the Samshaptakas, Trigartas, the Narayana army, the Sindhu army and Shalya of Madra.
Definitions – A atirathi is one capable of contending with 10,000 warriors simultaneously.
A maharathi is a warrior capable of fighting 60,000 warriors simultaneously; circumspect in his mastery of all forms of weapons and combat skills.
An Akshauhini was an ancient battle formation that consisted of 21,870 chariots (Sanskrit ratha); 21,870 elephants; 65,610 horse-mounted warriors and 109,350 infantry, as per the Mahabharata (ratio – 1 chariot : 1 elephant : 3 horse-mounted warriors : 5 infantry soldiers) It should be noted that in each of these large number groups (65,610, etc.), the digits add up to 18 which further add upto 9.
This setup is preserved in the game of chess.
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 Yudhisthira 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 from hidden 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 youngest brother of king Duryodhana, was the military officer in-charge of Bhishma’s protection.
Before the battle began, Yudhisthira 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 Yudhisthira was surrendering before the first arrow was shot. Yudhisthira’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 Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira returned to his chariot and the battle was ready to commence.
When the battle commenced, Bhishma went through the Pandava army wreaking havoc wherever he went. 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 Yudhisthira saying that eventually victory would be his.
Day – 2
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 Dhristadyumna similarly engaged in a duel during which Drona broke Dhristadyumna’s bow numerous times. Bhima intervened and rescued Dhristadyumna. 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 battle field. The Kaurava army had suffered great losses at the end of the second 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.
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 vigour. It was as if there were more than one Bhishma on the field.The Pandava army soon began to retreat in chaos.
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 great-uncle. During the battle, Bhishma killed numerous soldiers of Arjuna’s armies. This enraged Lord Krishna, who grabbed a chariot wheel to kill Bhishma. Bhishma wanted Lord Krishna to break his vow not to pick up any weapon in the battle. Bhishma at once fell at his feet and requested Krishna to kill him, as there would be nothing greater than attaining death at the hands of the supreme lord himself. Seeing this, Krishna calmed down and smiled and the battle between Arjuna and Bhishma continued. And both of them killed several soldiers of the opposite armies.
The fourth day battle was noted for the valour shown by Bhima. Bhishma commanded the Kaurava army to move on the offensive from the outset. Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu, 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. Ghatotkacha seeing this, fell upon the Kaurava army in anger. Bhishma, realizing that no one could stand against the angry Ghatotkacha, sounded retreat. 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.
Day -6 and 7
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.
Day – 8
On the eighth day Bhima killed eight of Dhritarashtra’s sons and Arjuna’s son Iravan was killed by the Kauravas.
On the ninth day Krishna, once again overcome by anger at the apparent inability of Arjuna to defeat Bhishma, rushed towards the Kaurava commander, but Arjuna stopped him. Realising that the war could not be won as long as Bhisma were standing, Krishna suggested the strategy of placing a woman in the field to face him.
Day – 10
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 Bhisma’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 given to him by his father of ‘self wished death’. 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.
With Bhishma unable to continue, Karna entered the battle field, much to Duryodhna’s joy. He made Drona the supreme commander of the Kaurava forces. Karna and Duryodhana wanted to capture Yudhisthira alive. Killing Yudhisthira 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 Yudhisthira’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 Yudhisthira failed, Drona confided to Duryodhna that it would be difficult as long as Arjuna was around. The king of Trigartadesa, Susharma along with his 3 brothers and 35 sons who were fighting on the Kaurava side made a pact that they would kill Arjuna or die. They went into the battle field 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 Yudhisthira. The Pandavas however fought hard and delivered severe blows to the Kaurava army.
Duryodhana summoned King Bhagadatta, the monarch of Prajayogastha (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.
On the other side of the battlefield, the remaining four Pandavas and their allies were finding it impossible to break Dronacharya’s Chakravyuh 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 Chakravyuh formation, which could only be broken by entering and exiting the formation. Yudhisthira instructed, Abhimanyu, one of Arjuna’s sons to break the Chakravyuh formation. Abhimanyu knew the secret of entering the Chakravyuh formation, but did not know how to exit it. Eventually he was trapped in the Chakravyu, which led to his death.
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 Jayadratha on the battlefield, Arjuna slew an akshouhini (hundreds of thousands (109,350)) of Kaurava soldiers. The Kaurava army tightly protected Jayadratha, however, preventing Arjuna from attacking him. Finally, in late afternoon, Arjuna found Jayadratha guarded by Karna and five other great warriors. Seeing his friend’s plight, Lord Krishna raised his Sudarshana Chakra to cover the sun, faking a sunset. All took off their arms believing the day had ended and Jayadratha was exposed. As the sun shone its last ray, Arjuna shot a powerful arrow decapitating Jayadratha.
The battle continued past sunset. When the bright moon rose, Ghatotkacha, son of Bhima slaughtered numerous warriors, attacking while flying in the air. Karna stood against him and both fought fiercely until Karna released the Indrastra, a celestial dart given to him by Indra. Ghatotkacha increased his size and fell dead on the Kaurav army killing thousands of them.
Day – 15
After King Drupada and King Virata were slain by Drona, Bhima and Dhristadyumna fought him on the fifteenth day. Because Drona was very powerful and unconquerable having brahamastras, Krishna hinted to Yudhisthira that Drona would give up his arms if his son Ashwathama was dead. Bhima proceeded to kill an elephant named Ashwathama, and loudly proclaimed that Ashwathama was dead. Drona approached Yudhisthira to seek the truth of his son’s death. Yudhisthira proclaimed Ashwathama Hatha Kunja, but the last two words Hatha Kunja implying that the elephant had died were drowned out by trumpets sounded in triumph, on Krishna’s instruction.
Prior to this incident, the chariot of Yudhisthira, proclaimed as Dharma raja (King of righteousness), hovered a few inches off the ground. After the event, the chariot rode on the ground.
Drona was disheartened, and laid down his weapons. He was then killed by Dhristadyumna 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.
On the sixteenth day, Karna became supreme commander of the Kaurava army, killing countless warriors during the day. A fierce battle took place between Arjuna and Karna. Even Krishna praised Karna for his valour. Karna finally succeeded in breaking Arjuna’s Gandiva bow string. Just as Karna was about to slay Arjuna, sunset occurred. Observing the rules of warrior conduct, Karna spared Arjuna.
On the seventeenth day, Karna defeated Bhima and Yudhisthira in battle but spared their lives. Later, Karna resumed duelling with Arjuna. During their duel, Karna’s chariot wheel got struck 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. On the same day, Bhima swung his mace and shattered Dushasana’s chariot. Bhima seized Dushasana and killed him, thus fulfilling his vow made when Draupadi was humiliated.
On the 18th day, Yudhishthira killed king Shalya, Sahadeva killed Shakuni, and Bhima killed Duryodhana’s remaining brothers. Realizing that he had been defeated, Duryodhana fled the battle field 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 in which Duryodhana was mortally wounded.
Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, and Kritvarma met Duryodhana at his deathbed and promised to avenge him. They attacked the Pandavas’ camp later that night and killed all the Pandavas’ sons, including Dhristadyumna and Shikhandi.
At the end of the 18th day, only eleven warriors survived the war – the five Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki, Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, Yuyutsu and Kritvarma. Yudhisthira was crowned king of Hastinapur. He renounced the throne after ruling for more than 30 years.