This three part article is a compilation of information on Kurukshetra war as mentioned in the Vyāsa Bhārata. The latter is considered a narrative of the events during the war since the author Sage Krishna Dwaipāyana Vyāsa, was a contemporary of the Pāndavās and Kauravās. Other references used are also mentioned along with some interesting information not directly connected with the war.
Both Rāmāyanā and Mahābhāratā are mentioned as itihāsa (इतिहास) (translated as history but more precisely means creative rendering of historical narratives) and not as purāna (generally interpreted as mythology, but more correctly referring to creative narratives of events older than the narrator). Veda Vyāsā is traditionally considered to have written the purānā and Mahābhārata. He clearly distinguishes the two by calling the latter an ithihāsa, which in Sanskrit means history [ithi – it; hāsa – happened so].
The word ‘Itihaasa’ (इतिहास) is a conjunct that can be broken down as
iti+ha+āsa meaning thus+verily+it was / so+indeed+it was/ this is how it was then
Itihaasa thus refers to history and is also a very accurate word. Other words often listed as synonyms for itihaasa are also used in other contexts. Examples – caritra (चरित्र) can be used in other contexts (eg. character) and vṛttānta (वृत्तान्त) usually reporting one incident. However, there is no other meaning for itihaasa. It is used only in one context, that of history. On the other hand, purāṇa (पुराण), although understood as mythology, actually refers to ‘an event of the past, an ancient legend or old traditional history’. Every purāṇa would speak high of the personality central to the theme whereas itihaasa has no such compulsions. It would speak of things as they were.
Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata
In Rāmāyana (रामायण), ayana means journey. Examples: dakṣiṇa ayana – Southern journey; uttara ayana – Northern journey; Rāma ayana – Rāma’s journey. The word ayana also implies some kind of returning path, as Rāma goes and returns. These are a form of conjunct words where the first word is a genitive form, so Raamaayana actually translates to Rāmasya ayanaH.
Mahābhārata (महाभारत) refers to ‘narration relating to Bhārata’, ‘great history/legend of the descendants of Bharata’ and ‘great tale of Bharata dynasty’. Mahābhārata composed by Vyāsa was originally called Jaya (mentioned in the first verse).
नारायणं नमस्कृत्य (Nārayanam namaskritya) (Having bowed to Narayana)
नरं चैव नरॊत्तमम (naram chaiva narottamam) (Arjuna–naram, and krishna–narottama)
देवीं सरस्वतीं चैव (devim sarasvatīm caiva) (and to Devi Sarasvatī)
ततॊ जयम उदीरयेत (tato jayam udīrayet) (utter the word jaya / recite the text called jaya)
It is narrated by Vyāsa’s disciple sage Vaisampāyana to King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna. The story is then recited again by the professional storyteller Ugrasrava to an assemblage of sages in the forest of Naimiṣāraṇyam. All these are mentioned in the Mahābhārata. Parallel sources such as the Brahmana texts also give list of kings mentioned in Mahābhārata. Notwithstanding the general understanding and interpretation, Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata are traditionally considered historical texts.
Composer of Mahābhārata
The name of Veda Vyāsā, the composer of Mahābhārata, is Bādarāyanā (the one from Badari). He comes in the lineage of Brahmā, Sage Vasishta, Sage Shakti and Sage Parāshara. He was the great-grandson of Sage Vasishta (he therefore was also called Vāsishta, i.e. belonging to the family of Sage Vasishta), grandson of Sage Shakti and son of Sage Parāshara. He was also called Dwaipāyanā since he was born in a Dweep (island). He was referred as Krishna Dwaipāyanā because of his dark skin (Krishnā means black). This is intriguing since it is generally believed that the epics and Vedas were written by the ‘fair skinned’ Aryans. In this context, it is interesting to note that Vyāsā (considered an Aryan) was actually dark-skinned and addressed with a prefix ‘Krishnā’. He is, however, generally known as Vyāsā because of his monumental work in organising the Vedas, which till then existed as one, into four parts. Vyās, in Sanskrit literally means to arrange, to compile. Encyclopaedia Brittanica mentions of Vyāsā as having lived near the banks of river Saraswati.
Mahābhāratā has 18 parts, 98 chapters, 2352 divisions and 96,635 slokās. It is said that Vyāsā originally wrote 60,00,000, i.e. 60 lakhs slokās. What has come down to us is about 1 lakh slokās only. Vyāsā taught Mahābhārata to Sukā, his son and some of his disciples, one of whom was Vaisampāyanā. When Janamejayā (great grandson of Arjunā) conducted a yajña, Vaisampāyanā narrated the Mahābhārata as told by Vyāsa. Ugrasrava (son of Romaharshanā, a disciple of Vyāsā) known as Sutā (referring to a professional storyteller) was also present at that time. He went to ‘Naimishāranya’ where there was a gathering of rishis (one of them was Saunakā) and there he told them the epic. It is mentioned that this is the place where Mahābhārata was first told in public and the version that has come down to us.
DETAILS OF THE KURUKSHETRĀ WAR
Army strength and its divisions
Vyāsā gives extensive details of the army. Eighteen Akshouhinis (अक्षौहिणी) took part in the war, 11 on the side of the Kauravās and 7 on the side of Pāndavās. Table 1 outlines the make up of one Akshouhini.
Table 1: Army divisions in the Kurukshetra war
* chariot akin to a modern day armour and an elephant compared to a tank (Ref 1)
Considering the 18 akshouhinis involved in the war, a total of 3,93,660 chariots, 3,93,660 elephants, 11,80,980 horses and 19,68,300 foot soldiers had taken part.
Actual count in one Akshouhini
It is not clear if the count includes the 3,93,660 soldiers on the chariots, driving the chariots, and controlling the elephants and the 11,80,980 men on the horseback. If these numbers are also included, then the soldiers actually on the battlefield would be 43,30,260, i.e. about 4.3 million people. Not included also are the horses attached to each chariot. Some of the chariots were drawn by more than 1 horse. However, the minimum number of horses used for the chariots would be the number of chariots, i.e. 3,93,660. The total number of horses would therefore have been 15,74,640. Besides these active participants, there were others such as Vaidhiks (doctors), helpers (nurse-men), cooks, tailors, advisors, spies, men with knowledge of the art of warfare, messengers, etc., as part of the army.
Importance of the number 18 in Bhārata Varshā
The importance of number 18 in Bhārata Varshā has been pointed out by many. The recurrence of number 18 in Mahābhāratā is also very interesting. Vyāsā wrote 18 Purānās. Mahābhāratā is divided in 18 Parvās (parts). The Gitā has 18 chapters. The Kurukshetrā war lasted for 18 days. The war in Rāmāyanā continued for 18 months and the war between the Devās and Asurās took 18 years. Bheeshmā teaches Yudhishthirā 18 different Raja Needhi (dharma) and so on. Interestingly, the number of Akshouhinis (army unit) that took part in the Kurukshetrā war was also 18.
Even in the composition of one Akshouhini, number 18 seems to play a role. For example, it is interesting that individual addition of the numbers in each unit adds upto 18:
21,870 chariots/elephants (2+1+8+7+0=18)
65,610 horses (6+5+6+1=18)
1,09,350 cavalry men (1+0+9+3+5+0=18)
If all these numbers are added (i.e. make up of one Akshouhini) , i.e. 21870 + 21870 + 65610 + 109350, the resultant number 2,18,700 also displays the same feature, i.e. addition of the individual numbers (2+1+8+7+0+0=18) results in 18.
Rathikā – fights with one charioteer at a time.
Athirathā – fights against many soldiers at the same time
(eg – Krupā, Dhurmugā, Vivimsathi, Uttamaujā and Uttrā).
Mahārathā – fights against 10,000 charioteers at the same time
(eg – Dhronā, Bowravā, the five sons of Draupadi, Virātā)
Countries and kings who participated in the Kurukshetrā war
The countries/states mentioned in the Vyāsa Bhāratā to have taken part in the war are: Pānchālā*, Madrā*, Matsyā*, Sālvā, Videhā, Bāhlikā, Dhasārnā, Surasenā*, Kalingā*, Magadhā*, Vangā*, Angā*, Gāndhārā*, Kāmbojā*, Kosalā, Govāsanā, Trigarthā*, Mālwā*, Yavanā*, Chedhi*, Pāndyā, Cholā, Kekeyā*, Kāsi, Prāgjyothishā*, Avanthi*, Sindhu desh, Chinā, Mlechchhā*. Only 2 kings did not take part in the war from Bhārata Varshā – Krishnā’s brother Balarāmā and Rukmi (prince of Vidharba and a Bhojā king) brother of Krishnā’s wife Rukmini. All other kings from Bhārata Varshā are said to have taken part in the war.
* Geographic location of the countries (Maps 1 & 2)
Most of the information given below are from Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The others indicated within paranthesis are from other sources.
Gāndhārā – Northwestern Pakistan and extending into the valleys of Kabul and Swat and
including districts of Peshawar (Peshawar was then known as Purushapura).
Avanti – the Ujjain-Narmada valley region in Madhya Pradesh
Magadhā – west-central Bihar in Northeastern India
Mālwā – likely that Southern Rajasthan as far as Narmada and Ujjain district was named/known as Malwa after the Mālavās, who appear to have migrated from Punjab to the Jaipur area around 58 BC.
Trigarthās – associated with the Chambā region of the upper Rāvi River, but they also may have inhabited the area of Jālandhavā in the plains.
Yavanā – in Indian literature, Yavanā refers to Greece. They are probably originally Bactrian Greeks. Later, the term could have referred to all coming from Western Asia and Mediterranean including Rome, Persia and Arab. (Interestingly, Mahābhāratā refers to the descendants of prince Dhurvasu as Yavanās. It is said that since this prince, the second son of king Yayāthi through Devayani does not ascend the throne, he moves out of Bhārata Varsha and his descendants are called Yavanās)
Mlechchhā – in Sanskrit, Mlechchhā means people of foreign origin. Mlechchhās were found in North Western India. There is reason to believe that the people known in Akkadian* as Mlakkā were the original Mlechchhās. (Interestingly, Mahābhāratā refers to the descendants of prince Anu as Mlechchhās. It is mentioned that this prince, the second son of king Yayāthi through Sarmishtā does not ascend the throne and hence moves out and his descendants are called Mlechchhās)
Prāgjyotishā– modern Guwahati. Ancient Kāmarupā (Assam) included roughly the Brahmaputra valley, Bhutan, Rangpur region (Bangladesh), Koch Bihar, West Bengal. King Narakāsurā and his descendant Bagadattā (who takes part in Kurukshetrā war) were famous rulers of Kāmarupā in Mahābhārathā period. Rangpur in North Western Bangladesh on Ghāgāt River mentioned as the country residence of Bagadattā (Map 2).
Kāmbojā- adjoining Gandhārā. Later, it became a trading centre for horses imported from Central Asia.
Kekeyā, – between Gāndhārā and Beas River. (Kaikeyi of Rāmāyanā is from Kekeyā,
Madrā the reason she was called Kaikeyi)
Matsyā – South west of Delhi (This is where the Pāndavās spent the 13th year of their Vanavās)
KuruPānchālā Ganges-Yamuna Doab.
Mallā – Eastern Uttar Pradesh
Surasenā – with Mathurā as capital
Chedi – Bundelkhand, lay on route to Deccan
Magadhā – around Patna and Gayā
Angā – North of the delta.
Buddhist writings and other sources on Pre-Mauryan states (500 – 150 BC) mention 16 major states dominating the Northern part of the sub-continent. Some of the states mentioned in the Mahābhāratā find mention. For instance, Gāndhārā, Kāmbojā, Kuru Pānchālā, Matsyā, Kāsi and Kosalā. These are continued from the earlier period and are also mentioned in Vedic literature. Other states are Avanti, Asvakā, Surasenā, Chedi, Mallā, Vrijji, Magadhā, Angā (Encyclopaedia Brittanica).
Encyclopaedia Brittanica mentions a state called ‘Covasna’ in Hungary/Romania in olden times and Balikh around 2300 BC in old Mesopotamia. Their similarity to Govāsana and Bahlika mentioned in Mahabhārathā is interesting. The above map-1 showing states in India around 500 BC is taken from Encyclopaedia Britannica. Some of the states mentioned in Mahābhārata can also be seen. The kingdoms of Cherā, Cholā and Pandyā have been shown additionally by the author.
Kings who contributed army divisions to Kauravās
The following kings contributed 1 Akshouhini army each to Duryodhanā:
(1) Salyā of Madrā kingdom
(2) Kruthavarmā of Sātwādhā clan (one of the 3 to survive the war])
(3) Bhurisravā son of Somadattā, the king of Bahlikā
(4) Bagadattā, king of Prāgjyothishā (descendant of Narakāsurā born of Vishnu and Bhoomā Devi)
(5) King of China
(6) Jayadrathā of Sindhu kingdom (son-in-law of Dhrudhrurashtrā)
(7) Neelā, king of Kāmbojā
(8) Vindhā, Anuvindhā of Avanthi kingdom
(9) King of Vangā
(10) Sudakshinā of Kāmbojā
(11) Srudhāyu of Kalingā (he took part in the Swayamvarā of Draupadi)
The 11 Akshouhinis were lead each by Krupā, Salyā, Jayadrathā, Sudhakshinā, Kruthavarmā, Ashvattāmā, Karnā, Bhurisravā, Sakuni, Bāhligā and Dronā.
Kings and clans who fought for Kauravās
Kings (some names)
In addition to the kings who provided substantial army to the Kauravās, there were other kings and princes who fought on the side of the Kauravās. The names of kings who fought with Kauravās are:
- Srudhāyu (Kalingā)
- King of Vangā
- Sakuni (Gāndhārā)
- Uloogā (Sakuni’s son)
- Vrukshā (Sakuni’s brother)
- Asalā (Sakuni’s brother)
- Sudhakshinā (Kāmbojā)
- Kāmbojā (Kāmbojā)
- Jayathsenā (Magadhā)
- Bruhathbālā (king of Kosalā)
- Saibyā (king of Govāsanā)
- Rukmaradhā (Salyā’s son)
- Kethuman (king from Kalingā)
- Chakradevā (son of Kethuman)
- Bagā brothers
- Alambusā (Bagā’s brother)
- Alāyudhā (Bagā’s brother)
- Ekalaivā ( Nishaada or hunters’ king)
- Susarmā (king of Trigarthā)
- Jalasandhā (Magadhā king)
- Indravarmā (king of Mālwā)
- Dhandādhā (Magadhā)
- Dhandā (Magadhā)
- Sālvā* (Sālvā kingdom – referred as leader of the ‘Mlechchhās’ or foreigners)
- Angā (a Mlechchhā king)
- Alambalā (Sadāsurā’s son)
- Vrukshasenā (Karnā’s son)
- Sukshenā (Karnā’s son)
- Prasenā (Karnā’s son)
- Sathyasenā (Karnā’s son)
- Chitrasenā (Karnā’s son)
- Lakshmanā (Duryodhanā’s son)
- other grand-sons of Dhritarāshtra (names are not mentioned)
- the 100 sons of Dhritarāshtra (all their names are mentioned by Vyāsā)
* the king who wanted to marry Ambā, the princess of Kāsi but was defeated by Bheeshmā and later refused to marry Ambā.
The clans who took part in the war are Yavana, Saga, Bhoja, Nishada*, Mlechchha.
* Nishada are supposed to be very short, black in complexion, very powerfully built and with red hair. They were hunters. Incidentally, Guha the character in Ramayana was a Nishada king.
Kings who contributed army divisions to Pāndavās
On the Pāndavā side, 7 kings contributed 1 Akshouhini army each:
(1) Sātyaki * (of Shini clan and one of the 7 on the Pāndavā side to survive the war)
(2) Dhrushtakethu of Chedhi kingdom (son of Sisupālā, who was killed by Krishnā)
(3) Jayathsenā of Magadhā kingdom (son of Jarāsandhā killed earlier by Bheemā)
(4) Malayadhwaja Pandyā of Pandyā kingdom in South
(5) Kekeyā of Kekeyā kingdom
(6) Dhrupadhā the king of Pānchālā
(7) Virātā of Matsyā kingdom.
The 7 Akshouhinis were led by Drupadhā, Virātā, Drushtadhyumnā, Sikandi, Sātyaki, Chekidānā (Vrushni clan) and Drushtakethu.
* Sātyaki was the grandson of King Shini who fought with Vāsudevā (Krishnā’s father) along with Sowmadattā during the Swayamvarā of Devaki (Krishnā’s mother). Bhurisravā who fought for the Kauravās is the grandson of Sowmadattā.
Kings and clans who fought for Pāndavās
Kings (some names)
The other kings/princes who fought on the side of the Pāndavās were-
- Utthamaujā (Pānchālā prince)
- Yudhāmanyu (Pānchālā prince)
- Drushtadhyumnā (Pānchālā prince)
- Sikandi (Pānchālā prince)
- Sathyajit (Pānchālā prince)
- Veerakethu (Pānchālā prince)
- Pachālyā (Pānchālā prince)
- Sons of Pānchālā princes
- Kshatradarmā (son of Drushtadhyumnā)
- Kshatradevā (son of Sikandi)
- 10 sons of Sātyaki
- King of Kasi
- Abibu (son of king of Kāsi)
- Kunthibojā (Vrushni clan)
- Senābindhu (Vrushni clan)
- Chekidānā (Vrushni clan)
- Yagnasenā (Pānchālā)
- Mithravarmā (Kekeyā)
- Sadhāneegā (Virātā’s brother)
- Madhirākshasā (Virātā’s brother)
- Suryadattā (Virātā’s brother)
- Sangā (Virātā’s son)
- Utthrā (Virātā’s son)
- Swethā (Virātā’s son)
- Sadhāneegā (Virātā’s son)
- Cholā king*
- Pāndyā king*
- Sudāmanyu (king of Dasārnā)
- Prathivindyā (Yudhishthirā’s son by Draupadi)
- Gadodhgajā (Bheemā’s son by Idumbi)
- Sudhasomā (Bheemā’s son by Draupadi)
- Anjanaparvā (Gagodhgajā’s son)
- Sruthakirthi (Arjunā’s son by Draupadi)
- Abhimanyu (Arjunā’s son by Subhadrā)
- Aravān (Arjunā’s son by Nāgā princess Uloobi)
- Sadhānigā (Nakulā’s son by Draupadi)
- Sruthsenā (Sahādevā’s son by Draupadi)
* In addition, it is mentioned that the Cherā king supplied food to the entire army. Because of this he is known as ‘Perum Chotrudaya Udhayan’ meaning the Udhayan, who possessed large amounts of food. This is also mentioned in the old Tamil classic “Pura Nānuru”. Mention is made of the Cherā, Cholā and Pāndyā kings from Southern kingdoms as having attended with lots of gifts for the ‘Rājasuya Yāgā’ conducted by Yudhishthirā at Indraprasthā. While the Cherā and Cholā kings are said to have gifted lots of sandalwood and pearls, the Pāndyā king is said to have given 96 bārams of high quality sandalwood and 96 high quality conches.
The clans mentioned are Nāgā*, Somagā.
* Extracts from “Ancient Jaffna” by Mudaliyar C Rasanayagam (1926). – “In the Mahābhārata the Nāgās are frequently mentioned as living in various parts of India and Ceylon in a highly civilised state under their own kings.
For example, Nagpur ( Nagapuram), Nagarjuna Hills, Nagarcoil, Nagarcot, Nagapattinum etc.” – from the Slab Inscription of Queen Lilavati by Mudaliyar C Rasanayagam, first Edition 1926 (http://ds.dial.pipex.com/ town/parade/nm58/rasa.htm). Nāgās were also considered to have inhabited the present Nagaland and Manipur areas.
Note – Repetition of some names could refer to different kings with the same name. Similarly, more than one name from a kingdom could refer to kings from the smaller states within the kingdom.
The author is in the Department of NMR, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.